11/15/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Food Aid Crisis as Typhoon Victims Hungry

The rush to deliver food to the Philippines for survivors of the massive Typhoon Haiyan Nov. 8 has renewed pressure on Congress to end a requirement that most U.S. food aid be bought from U.S. farmers and delivered thousands of miles on costly U.S. ships.

That requirement, which is being debated in Congress this week, drains up to 40 percent of the value of the $1.5 billion food aid budget into excessive and unnecessary shipping and management costs according to food aid expert David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

This provides a subsidy for U.S. famers and shippers -- who are already doing quite well exporting millions of tons of US grain to paying customers.

But it means that up to two million or more people will either remain hungry or be pushed into hunger. As a result the world will not meet the 2015 Millennium Goal of reducing world hunger by half since 1990 to below 800 million people.

The UN says 1.2 billion people still go to bed each day hungry.

"A conservative estimate is that 2 to 4 million additional people in need can be reached each year," if local purchase and other food aid reforms are adopted according to a USAID factsheet.

The other main reform sought by the Obama Administration from Congress is ending monetization -- a costly system of sending food to Non-Government Organizations, which sell the food locally overseas to provide funds for development assistance.

Thankfully, some U.S. food had already been pre-positioned in Sri Lanka so it will not take as long to reach the Philippines as food sitting in Middle Western U.S. silos today.

But in addition to increasing the time it takes to reach a crisis, the U.S. congressional requirements have raised the shipping cost by 40 to 45 percent above what they would be if the Obama administration got more cash for local purchase or could hire commercial non-US shipping.

Current law allows [my former employer] the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to spend up to $200 million on local purchasing -- about 13 percent of the annual $1.5 billion U.S. food aid budget.

Local purchase allows USAID to buy relief food near to a disaster. This then increases local farm production and it can reach victims in a matter of days.

Unfortunately, the war in Syria has made it difficult to send U.S. food into the war zones so much of the 2013 local purchase funds has been used up trying to reach the needy there. This left little for immediate relief in Somalia as well as in the Philippines.

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have both sought to get a bigger bang for the taxpayer's aid buck by increasing local purchase funds.

Beckmann said in an interview that up to two million people could be moved out of hunger if the Congress would approve local purchase expansion and allow USAID to buy relief food on local markets near the crisis.

In the long term, giving away U.S. wheat and rice in poor countries feeds folks for a while but has a negative impact on local farmers as it depresses food prices that farmers get for their crops. It is better to buy surplus food near the crisis and boost local farmers incentive to raise more and more food.

This week in Washington the Agriculture committees of the House and Senate are meeting in conference to resolve two different approaches to this need for food aid reform. The Senate wants to increase local purchase and the House does not.

Behind the scenes the lobbyists for farmers, shippers and even unions that load the ships are all pushing to block any change in the law. They even oppose moving food aid away from Agriculture and into the Appropriations committees that handle the rest of the foreign aid budget.

When I went to work for USAID one of my tasks was to inform the American people about the many good things our aid accomplishes, such as providing food, medicine, education, water and training from Kabul to Cairo to Haiti. When I told my boss Andrew Natsios that we might want to boast that much aid money gets spent back in the U.S.A., going to farmers, contractors, experts and U.S. employees, he said not to say it, even though it is largely true.

U.S. aid spent in the United States means that less of the aid budget reaches the field. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is trying to shift that, so more of the funds are spent on local people overseas.

In the same vein, shifting food aid to local purchase overseas will mean U.S. foreign aid reaches the very poor -- as intended -- rather than U.S. farmers and shippers who are unlikely to face hunger in their lifetimes.