When It Comes to Food Aid, “Buying Local” Makes the Most Sense

Chris Herlinger | April 11, 2013

Preparing a food shipment to Europe in 1950; a member of a food co-operative in northwest Haiti supported by CWS. Photo: CWS historical photo; Chris Herlinger/CWS

Preparing a food shipment to Europe in 1950; a member of a food co-operative in northwest Haiti supported by CWS. Photo: CWS historical photo; Chris Herlinger/CWS

The heroic images of food shipments being lifted up onto cargo ships bound for Europe after World War II continue to warm the heart – and are certainly a proud part of CWS’s history.

But times change.

What worked well two or three generations ago isn’t efficient anymore. Most of the world now realizes cash support for buying food locally makes more sense,  as a CWS-supported coalition of humanitarian and development groups have noted in a campaign to change the way the United States implements its food assistance programs.

The campaign has started to pay off. This week, in the budget it is sending to Congress, the Obama administration announced recommended changes in the way U.S. food assistance is procured and delivered.

“This budget reflects a strong commitment to helping the hungry in times of crisis, as well as securing long-term food security for the world’s most vulnerable,” CWS and the other organizations said Wednesday (April 10). Now it is up to Congress to debate and pass the proposals.

The cornerstone of the proposed changes includes removing outdated restrictions on purchasing and shipping food that end up slowing the delivery of aid to areas facing a crisis or famine. Such practices have been both inefficient and have inflated costs to U.S. taxpayers.

The CWS-supported coalition noted that experts “unanimously agree that purchasing locally-produced food from farmers in or near a region facing an emergency is far more cost-effective and provides faster relief than the current approach, which requires the shipment of U.S. commodities halfway around the globe.”

A four-year government pilot program found that locally-based food resulted in food aid “reaching recipients more than two months faster than in-kind food aid and at a significantly lower cost for the majority of commodities.”

Other changes? Allowing U.S.-based humanitarian groups to expand their ability to purchase food closer to where the food assistance is needed. The proposed changes also call for promoting “sustainable solutions” that both support small-holder farmers and build up their local food markets, so poor countries become more resilient and can better overcome what is chronic “food insecurity.”

Efficiency has become a mantra in our world of humanitarian assistance, and not only because we want to avoid waste. Of course, we want to be good stewards of the funds that have been donated to us. But more importantly, we want to get aid quickly to where it is most needed.

A cash-driven aid system helps local and regional farmers increase their production capacity – which is a long-term goal for the United States anyway.

Additionally, there is a “green element” to all of this. Buying food not only boosts local economies, but reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that come with shipping food across great distances.

All in all, these changes seem welcome, don’t they?

Chris Herlinger is a writer with CWS.