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Originally published May 30, 2013 at 8:03 PM | Page modified May 31, 2013 at 11:36 AM

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U.S.-international-food aid now faces its own conflict

U.S. food assistance to poor countries generally has broad support, but President Obama’s plans to reform the food-aid system have set off division within the foreign-aid and business communities.

Special to The Seattle Times

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I’ve seen U.S. food aid at work in many of the countries I’ve visited around the world. From Ethiopia to Pakistan, those white sacks with red and blue “USAID: From the American people” stamped across them have meant relief for people experiencing disaster, conflict or extreme poverty.

At a time when American involvement abroad is often resented, and almost always controversial, U.S. food aid should be an easy thing to support right?

Well ... it’s complicated.

A growing number of constituents, from international-aid organizations like Oxfam to mega-food companies like Cargill, have thrown their support behind President Obama’s plans to reform the American food-aid system — which has fed an estimated 1 billion people since its founding in 1950s.

The current policy requires that a majority of all U.S. food aid be purchased from farmers in the United States. Reformers say that slows response in times of crisis, increases waste and ensures high prices and inefficient spending.

Obama’s proposed reform would allow for more “regional sourcing.” That means that instead of giving food itself, the U.S. government would essentially give money to countries to buy food in local markets.

“If you were to take all of U.S. food aid and free it up to source it anywhere you could reach 17 million additional people,” says Jonathon Scanlon, a lead organizer for Oxfam America here in Seattle. “If you care about ending hunger and poverty around the world, this is one way to do it.”

If you think this fight is only happening in the “other Washington” think again. Our state serves as an agricultural provider of international-food aid (wheat for example), and is an important port for food-aid exports.

Washington is also home to a number of powerful international-aid organizations and potentially influential politicians like Sen. Patty Murray, who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee where food-aid reform will be debated as part of the president’s larger budget proposal.

But not everyone here agrees with the president.

Robert Zachritz of World Vision, a Federal Way-based international-aid organization, says they are “supportive of increasing flexibility” in the food-aid system. But World Vision opposes calls from the administration to end a food-aid “monetization” system that allows nonprofits to sell U.S. food aid in foreign markets to help fund international projects.

Food-aid reformers say the practice hurts local agricultural economies in poor countries by flooding their markets with U.S. imports. But World Vision says it helps sustain important development projects abroad.

“The funding mechanism may be imperfect but the programs that they fund are fabulous,” says Zachritz, citing irrigation and maternal-health programs supported through monetization.

East of the mountains, Scott Yates of the Spokane-based Washington Grain Commission says he’s worried that a cash-based food-aid system would be more vulnerable to budget cuts.

Yates says U.S. farmers and maritime industries (that ship U.S.-grown food abroad) act as powerful constituents for food aid. Because they benefit from a commodities-based food-aid system, they fight hard to ensure its continued funding in a political culture where international aid is often on the chopping block.

“Whenever there is a place to cut, food aid is cut,” says Yates whose organization proudly boasts that Washington wheat has been shipped to countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan “And if you have a cash-based system there’s going to be no one arguing for it.”

Ruby Mixon-Luecke, 24, a lead organizer for The Seattle Oxfam Action Corps disagrees. She’s got the afternoon off from her job at Eddie Bauer so she could bus downtown to deliver a food-aid reform petition to Congressman Jim McDermott’s office.

She believes her generation — which she argues is more committed to global issues because of social media — will fight for food aid in whatever its form. But more than anything Mixon-Luecke, who grew up poor, is disgusted by inefficiencies inside the current system.

“My mom would budget down to the can of soup,” she says remembering her own childhood. “If my mom could budget efficiently then the U.S. government should be able to budget.”

Millions of hungry people around the world just might agree.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute

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