Food Aid: Stuff People Need

Ambassador Ertharin Cousin and Nancy Lindborg say U.S. food aid has come a long way since serving as a means of donating surplus commodities.


Charles Kenny (“Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Old T-Shirt“) rightly points out the problem of people receiving donated items that they don’t need. We witnessed this during the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, and after the 2004 Asian tsunami. Many of the donations went unused.

But we strongly object to Kenny’s categorization of U.S. food aid as “stuff we don’t want.”  Food aid is not a way to dump American leftovers. While U.S. food aid started out as a means to donate surplus U.S. commodities, the U.S. government moved away from this decades ago, and now purchases food from American farmers through a competitive process. We donate food based on an identified need, in close consultation with the host government requesting the assistance. We do not provide assistance when it is not requested. 

In addition, we take into consideration what the right amount of food is, what type of food and nutritional content is best based on the local diet, and other key questions. These questions, combined with extensive analysis of local market conditions, help us target the right assistance to those who need it most, and avoid mass distribution of food to populations where only a small group may be in need.

We continually strive to improve the delivery of our food aid programs so that we can react to crises more quickly. One new way we are doing this is by increasing the number of sites where U.S. food aid is pre-positioned abroad, so that food can get to those who need it faster.

Additionally, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, we now have a program that uses cash, vouchers, and local and regional food purchases to ensure that we reach people more quickly with the right type of response based on local conditions. When the U.S. government responded to the earthquake in Haiti and flooding in Pakistan in 2010, we used all the tools at our disposal. We reached people within days with the right food assistance, delivered at the right time.

U.S. Mission to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture
Rome, Italy

Assistant Administrator
Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance
U.S. Agency for International Development
Washington, D.C.

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