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Genesis 44:18-47:27: Addressing Famine: Ancient Egypt and Today

12/18/2012 07:02 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

We do not help others in their time of need by increasing their dependence on us, but by helping them become more self-reliant and independent. This is as true in parenting and primary education as it is in international affairs.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph and his family are reunited after years of separation. Suffering the effects of famine in the land of Canaan, Joseph's father and siblings join him in Egypt. Joseph, we recall, has ascended from slavery to become Pharaoh's most trusted advisor. Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, has devised an elaborate food storage plan to deal with the "lean years" in the region.

"Give no thought to your possessions," Pharaoh says in his invitation to Jacob and his family, "for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours" (Genesis 45:20). Generous as this offer may seem, it is complicated because the Patriarch and his sons become completely dependent on the Egyptian monarchy; their land and food are the property of the kingdom.

The situation is even worse for the Egyptian populace, who give up all they own in exchange for food from Pharaoh's storehouses. They become so hungry that they actually beg to be slaves. Joseph's grand food aid program is problematic, to say the least.

Even if well-intentioned, one wonders if some of the United States' current agrarian policies likewise create dependency problems for the countries they are attempting to support.

We have long been taught that American is the world's breadbasket. President Eisenhower established the "Food for Peace" program in 1954, in which American food surplus was set aside to feed the world. Its supporters boast that this program has helped 3 billion people in 150 countries. However, we should also be concerned by how these acts and programs are carried out.

Since by law 75 percent level of food aid must be bought from American agribusiness and shipped by American companies, 40 percent of U.S. food aid money goes directly to American shipping companies, and the price paid for grain is more than 10 percent higher than what could be bought on the international market. It also means that we further subsidize our American food industry while upending the local food industry where the aid is given, by crowding out their business.

Additionally, the food we send, which is very slow to arrive, often does not provide the types of food that are requested but rather the types that we wish to provide. Recipient countries often become dependent upon U.S. aid and end up in an even worse economic situation.

For example, less than a generation ago, Haitian farmers were able to grow enough rice for their population during normal years. Now, after years of American and international food aid policy that distributed foreign grain to the people of Haiti, that nation's farmers have been driven out of business; local farmers now produce less than a fifth of the rice necessary to feed the populace, so Haiti must either import food or depend even more on foreign food aid. It is a painful cycle of dependence that causes long-term harm.

Critics, such as the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), are attempting to change this policy. AJWS believes that American food aid funding should be paid directly to local farmers in developing nations to buy their food, or purchase the available local food that may be temporarily too expensive for the local population to afford. In addition, trusted local organizations could be given funds to purchase this food. Once the situation stabilizes, the local farmers would remain in a position to supply their people with food, and the need for food aid would abate. AJWS has already worked with farmers and organizations in Thailand, Kenya and Haiti; it reports that the United States could feed 17 million more people, and get the food to the people 14 weeks earlier, for no increase in expenses if it changed its distribution policies.

There is a precedent for this more efficient and constructive model of food aid. In the years following World War II, the Marshall Plan (1948-1951) provided the nations of Europe with billions of dollars worth of grants to buy their own food, which helped the recovery of European agriculture. This formula ensured that Europe would not be dependent on foreign food aid in the long-term.

Currently, Congress is considering the Farm Bill, which by law is supposed to be renewed every five years. This year, the Senate version moved toward a more reasonable system that would allow for the purchase of local goods and payment, while the House of Representatives reverted to a less equitable version of this plan. The United States Congress will continue to debate the U.S. Farm Bill. We must speak up to ensure that the final version of the Farm Bill represents the most just ways of giving, and that our food aid program is reformed.

As Jews, we know well the importance of fighting poverty and alleviating hunger. We are like Joseph, blessed with influence in the greatest country of our time. We must use that influence to advance the cause of justice for all.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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