America is the No. 1 provider of food aid to the world, yet the biggest beneficiaries are not the hungry but U.S. factory farms and the shipping industry. That's because the food must be supplied from here and shipped mostly on American vessels - a waste of precious time and money that President Bush is trying to change. Ending this waste is not merely an economic issue but a humanitarian one. The purchasing power of U.S. food aid has fallen as millions more in Africa, Asia and elsewhere face starvation, flooding, war and drought.
U.S. food aid comes in the form of "in-kind" supplies, not cash, and three-fourths of it must be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. The overhead alone from business costs and transportation consumes about 65 percent of the $2-billion annual budget, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. While annual spending has been stable, rising overhead costs have left the United States to ship less aid - 52 percent less tonnage between 2001 and 2006. It is an inefficient system, indefensible financially and morally. That is why other food donor nations provide cash instead.
President Bush wants Congress to change the law to allow 25 percent of the budget to be spent in localities where the food is needed. That formula would still overly protect American suppliers. But it would put more food into hungry bellies and cut overhead costs. Taxpayers deserve a bigger bang for their bucks. Buying food locally would speed the delivery of supplies during an emergency. The delays under the present setup can add months and tens of millions of dollars to the costs of delivering aid. Buying locally also would help develop the farming and distribution network in these emerging countries, helping to bolster their ability to overcome food shortages down the road.
Bush has proposed this change before. He will need the help of conservative and liberal lawmakers, of Democrats and Republicans, to overcome opposition from the farm states to cut back this domestic entitlement. The president's plan makes economic sense and would be good foreign policy. The United States is the leading food aid donor, but its programs assist only 11 percent of the 850-million people hungry worldwide. We can and must do better.