Developing strategies to end hunger

3 posts from May 2011

Better Nutrition, Quality Control Needed to Improve U.S. Food Aid

According to a recently released report from the Government Accountability Office, improving the nutrition content of U.S. food aid can make it more effective for vulnerable populations overseas. It found that food products provided to address short-term emergency feeding requirements may not provide adequate nutrition in the long term if consumers are relying on aid as their primary source of food. According to the report, half of all funding for food aid emergency feeding was spent on multi-year programs. Specialized foods with specific fortifications of vitamins and minerals designed for emergency feeding provide strong nutritional outcomes but are more costly than traditional food aid products. The cost means that they are not available for general distribution.

Therapeutic Feeding1

Photo Credit: Teseum

Food aid is distributed according to the needs of its targeted audience. General distribution aid, provided to meet the needs of an entire population affected by disaster, is mostly a dry commodity product distributed in bulk. Several days’ or weeks’ worth of food can be supplied at once and shared among family members. Examples of this type of food aid are bulk grains, milled cereals - usually fortified with vitamins and minerals - and pulses such as peas, dried beans, and lentils.

Supplementary feeding aid is provided to meet additional nutritional needs or to boost caloric intake. It is targeted to children under age 5, to women who are pregnant or lactating, or to people living with HIV/AIDS. It is provided for mildly to moderately undernourished children at community feeding centers or to other groups through health facilities or as part of a home-based care program. Corn Soy Blend (CSB) is a product popular for treating mild and moderately malnourished people; it’s made from a blend of partially cooked cornmeal, soy flour, salt, and vegetable oil, with vitamins and minerals added.

For those who are severely undernourished, therapeutic feeding is provided as part of an emergency response. New products have been developed that are specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of these most vulnerable groups of people. Studies are under way to see if these products can be especially helpful to very young children in the 1,000 days from pregnancy to age 2. Chronic under-nutrition is particularly harmful during this period as research indicates it causes long-term physical and cognitive damage and is irreversible.

CSB has traditionally been provided, but nutritionists are working to overcome some of its shortcomings by developing new specialized products, including enhanced versions of CSB, micronutrient powders, lipid-based supplements (a range of food products fortified with micronutrients that are fat-based because a minimum amount of dietary fat is necessary for the body to absorb essential vitamins like A, D, E and K), and other ready-to-eat forms of food for use in therapeutic settings.

While nutritional innovations within this group of specialized food products are especially promising, they do cost more than food rations used for general distribution. According to the GAO, “Within a fixed budget, providing more costly products would result in fewer numbers of beneficiaries served.” USAID and its implementing partner organizations that distribute this food aid overseas “may be faced with a programming choice between nutritional quality and the quantity of food provided.”

The report concludes that the government needs to provide better information on cost and “evidence-based nutritional outcomes.” There is a complex tradeoff between nutritional outcomes, the quantity of food aid distributed, and the number of people served. Products need to be tested in program settings, and clear guidance on how and when to use them must be developed. Once this information is available, the most appropriate food aid products can be distributed to targeted populations.

Foreign Assistance Myths and Reality

Most Americans believe foreign assistance comprises a much larger percentage of the federal budget than it actually does. What is your guess? Twenty percent? More? Less? In reality, poverty-focused development assistance (PFDA) comprises less than 1 percent of the budget. If you include all types of foreign assistance, the amount is slightly higher.


Few people understand what foreign assistance fully entails, and international issues are not often talked about during these tough financial times. But foreign assistance saves millions of lives and is an important component of U.S. national security.

PFDA programs were reduced by 7 percent in this year’s budget deal, and the House Budget Committee’s proposal would cut all categories of foreign assistance substantially by the year 2016. Some new members of Congress who arrived in Washington, DC, with a domestic economic focus support additional drastic cuts and the elimination of entire programs.

According to a recent editorial in The Washington Post by John Norris, there are a number of common misperceptions about the cost and effectiveness of foreign aid. He writes about some of the biggest myths about foreign assistance:

  • Republicans Hate Foreign Aid. Members of Congress have said it is harder to explain assistance to Ghana than assistance to grandma. But every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower and a majority of Republican representatives and senators strongly support foreign assistance. From creating foreign aid legislation under Gerald Ford, to initiatives by Ronald Reagan to launch democracy programs, to George Bush’s global war on HIV/AIDS, these conservative leaders saw the importance of supporting overseas assistance.
  • Foreign Aid Costs Too Much. Americans think foreign aid costs more than our national defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and domestic infrastructure projects. The amount the government spends on foreign assistance has remained steady at around 1 percent of the budget since the 1970s and has approached 5 percent only once, during the Johnson administration.
  • Foreign Aid Makes Countries Do As We Say. The desired outcome of foreign assistance programs is to build stable partners and reliable allies in the long term. The U.S. relationship with India during the Cold War and with Costa Rica during the 1980s was testy during the period when assistance was provided, but today these countries are strong regional allies, important trade partners, and stable democracies.
  • Foreign Governments Waste the Money We Give Them. Corruption is a serious concern in foreign assistance, but our own government’s inefficient policies are also contributing to waste.. For example, U.S. shipping requirements for food aid state that 75 percent of all food aid must be shipped on carriers registered in the United States. These requirements have cost American taxpayers $140 million in unnecessary transportation costs in a single year, according to the Government Accountability Office. During 2006-2008, where funding for food aid increased by more than 50 percent, actual shipped quantities declined by 5 percent because legislation required the use of American goods and services, instead of those that would maximize the amount of food aid provided.
  • Recipient Countries Never Graduate from U.S. Assistance. This claim has dogged the foreign assistance program for years, and yet Europe, Asia, and Latin America are full of countries whose economies have expanded to the point where they are viable and valued trading partners with the United States. According to the Commerce Department’s International Trade Commission, 10 of the 15 largest importers of U.S. goods and services are former foreign assistance recipients. Recent government initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was established under the Bush administration, stipulate that recipient countries must meet requirements combating corruption, institute better governance practices, and tackle economic reforms in order to receive U.S. assistance.

Foreign aid is more than a line in the federal budget. It is an investment in the future—not entirely risk-free—that can eventually provide tremendous economic benefit. The United States needs to stay the course with this long-term investment, and improve successes by providing aid in the most efficient and practical ways possible.

A “dashboard” of U.S. foreign assistance funding allocations can be found here for information and resource purposes.

Lazy Americans

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A large portion of Americans believe we have 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States because we're lazy.

According to this line of thinking, if we turned up the heat by reducing public benefits, some of the 13.5 million unemployed citizens would be compelled to turn off the TV, get off the couch, and apply for jobs working as field hands, cleaning staff, and construction workers.

This theory has a clean, mathematical appeal: Subtract an unauthorized worker and add an unemployed citizen equals fewer immigrants and higher citizen employment. Simple.

But the labor market isn’t so simple.  Unless we want to transition to a command economy where the government compels workers into certain jobs, we can’t force citizen workers to labor in agriculture, which is dominated by immigrants and has been for decades.

As I noted in a previous post, there have been numerous attempts to entice citizens to field work at wages above state and federal minimums. All have been unsuccessful. Even with the worst recession in decades and the Department of Labor trying to increase awareness of agricultural job vacancies among citizens, there have been very few takers.

Almost all serious observers and analysts agree that at least some of the work immigrants do in the United States—particularly agricultural—is never again going to be done by citizen workers. Barring an event of apocalyptic scale, U.S. citizens are not going to return to work in the fields in large numbers.

This trend is true around the world in developed and developing countries. If Americans are lazy, they’re in good company. Immigrants from relatively poorer countries perform agricultural work in economies as diverse as Canada, Japan, and El Salvador.

In Central America, El Salvador—which is a major source of migrants to the United States—employs 200,000 unauthorized immigrant workers from poorer neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras to work in agriculture because Salvadorans—who tend to be a bit wealthier than their neighbors—have started to abandon field labor.

Closer to home, Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) brings about 20,000 workers from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean each year to work in seasonal fruit and vegetable crops, some of which are exported to the United States. SAWP is run by the Canadian and Mexican governments and is seen by both as a model guest worker program.

Our abandonment of agricultural work is consistent with what happens around the world when societies become more educated and prosperous. Educated parents want their children to go to college, not work in the fields.

Since ramping up recruitment has failed to entice citizens to do agricultural work, other efforts have emphasized increasing wages. While moderate wage increases will help stabilize the current farm labor work force and lift many workers out of poverty, raising them to draw in citizen workers isn't a realistic solution according to leading agricultural economists.

That's because —in part—it isn't all about wages. While Mexico is an industrializing country, about a quarter of its population is still rural — millions of these rural Mexicans end up working in rural America.  

In the United States about 2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. We've essentially lost our taste for agricultural work at any realistic wage.

“The flexibility of low-wage labor markets … is always on the demand side, not the supply side,” University of California-Davis Professor Philip Martin said during a recent phone interview. “It’s much easier to reduce demand than to increase supply. If wages go up, we are going to hire fewer people,” Martin continues. “We’re not going to get more Americans out there.”

The same holds for an immigration crackdown that removes immigrant workers with the goal of creating space for citizens. Martin says a lack of immigrant workers due to an enforcement crackdown will prompt farmers to adopt one or several options:

1)      Increase mechanization

2)      Switch crops

3)      Sell their land

4)      Increase the cost of their products

“Hire more citizen workers” is not on the list and isn’t an economically realistic outcome of deporting immigrant workers.

Over the long term, the need for immigrants could gradually decrease as growers shift to labor-saving aides and mechanization. But immigrants will be central to the farm labor force at least for the next 20 years. Even beyond that, agriculture will continue to require some form of human labor.

Economics dictates that immigrants will be the farm labor force for the foreseeable future. Rather than harboring fantasies about middle-class Americans returning to the fields, we would be well-served by crafting a realistic agricultural labor policy that benefits workers, growers, and migrant-sending communities in Latin America.

Photo credit: racialjustice

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