Fighting Famine

What’s in store for U.S. food aid programs? Based in part on the Canadian approach,
big changes may be coming.

By Dave Weinstock

Blessed, for the most part, with plentiful rainfall, good soil fertility and readily available technology, North American farmers are very good at producing food. Too good, one might say.

USDA’s 2018 mid-year projections estimated total world grain surpluses will be just under 600 million metric tons at year’s end. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations was more bullish at 735 million metric tons.

Assuming the actual amount is someplace in the middle, our world grain surplus will roughly equal the amount of grain consumed worldwide in 2014. And that’s a good thing—not for prices, necessarily, but for food aid directed at regions stricken with famine caused by events, such as wars and natural disasters.

“Food aid is good,” says Philip Abbott, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “It’s helped a lot of people; it’s moved a lot of resources to where they needed to go.”

The Bigs

North American governmental food aid programs are a study of opposites. For instance, the U.S. program Food for Peace is the 300-pound gorilla, with its $1.6 billion annual budget.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers the Food for Peace program, reported it helped 69.4 million people in 53 countries in 2017. In addition, USDA created a stopgap program from existing accounts, called the Emergency Food Security Program, funding it with an additional $1.3 billion to enable more timely food aid than Food for Peace regulations allow. The United States is also the single largest contributor to the United Nations World Food Programme. Its $940 million 2018 donation outdistances the second largest contributor—Germany—by nearly $700 million.

On the other hand, Canada’s dollar commitment to global food aid is much smaller than its ally immediately to the south, but it closes the gap, in part, with an ability to deliver aid quickly to stricken areas. It splits its food assistance aid between the World Food Programme and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an independent consortium of church-related charity organizations. Canada’s U.N. donation is the sixth greatest in the world at $237 million and provides another $19.5 million to CFB. Global Affairs Canada, the federal agency with food aid program oversight, reported it served 900,000 people in 35 countries in fiscal year 2016–2017.

Despite the obvious advantage Food for Peace holds over its Canadian counterparts in budget and numbers served, a variety of experts in both countries agree the program managed by the U.S. is in need of an update. “Under previous farm bills, only 30 to 40 cents of every U.S. food aid dollar end up going toward food,” says Christopher Barrett, international professor of agriculture and dean of academic affairs for Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business.

Its principal flaws, say Barrett and others, have been two requirements with relevance that has waned over time. The first requires all food shipped abroad to be American-made; the second states 50% of Food for Peace gross tonnage must be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged ships to famine-stricken areas.

These two requirements slow delivery of critical assistance to distressed areas, often by several months, and drive up purchase prices and transport costs. According to a study conducted by Barrett’s research group, food purchased close to those countries receiving aid would take far less time to arrive. They also found it would cost 25 to 45% less, says Barrett. What’s more, according to a 2013 U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs fact sheet on food aid, the loss of sales would not significantly impact U.S. farmers—just .56% of net farm income is attributable to USAID food aid.

As this story goes to press, there is a bipartisan effort underway to reshape the Food for Peace program. Congress looks to eliminate the cargo preference and cut the American-made food requirement to 25%. These and other changes are similar to what the Canadian government now employs—changes that reportedly brought program costs down while increasing aid delivery efficiency.


The United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations World Food Programme.

The required homegrown component percentage of Canadian food aid was much higher than that of its U.S. counterparts until 10 years ago. Previously, 90% of the food aid Canada shipped had to be of Canadian origin.

“We’re fully untied,” says Jim Cornelius, CFB’s executive director. “Now, we and the World Food Programme can use those resources to source the food where it makes some sense and allows us to get the food there generally faster.”

CFB is a partnership of 15 church and church-based agencies, representing 30 Christian denominations. “It got started back in the 1970s, following the famine in Bangladesh, when a group of Mennonites said, ‘Let’s create a food bank for farmers to donate grain, and we’ll ship it,’” Cornelius recalls.

Canadian-funded aid now arrives in several forms: direct delivery of locally or regionally produced food, food-for-work programs, or vouchers or cash for people to buy food in local markets. “The government allows us to use its funds to purchase food closer to the areas of need and, in fact, expects us to purchase from developing-country farmers, if at all possible,” he says. “This enables us to get the right type of food to people quickly, often at less cost, and [it] supports rather than disrupts the markets of local producers.”

Global Affairs Canada, the agency overseeing the country’s food aid funding distribution, spent just over $19.5 million to fund CFB’s long-term and existing programs last year. Through charitable contributions, CFB collected $8 million from grower and community fundraising projects; about $3 million from its member organizations, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Canadian Baptist Ministries and the United Church of Canada, to name a few; and more than $375,000 in foundation grants.

Two Growing Projects

CFB gains no small amount of funding from the charitable efforts of its country’s citizens. Last year, 259 Canadian growing and community projects raised funds in support of its programs.

The Canadian federal government provides as much as 4-to-1 matching money for all proceeds raised in this manner. Project leaders say the matching funds help to spur donations and bids at auction to even higher levels.

Growing projects are those run by the agricultural community. “They tend to grow crops for us in projects all across the country and donate the proceeds of that crop to us because we’re no longer shipping it,” Cornelius says.

Jack Koetsier of Sarnia, Ontario, is a grain and poultry farmer who has worked on CFB growing projects for more than 20 years. He and 10 other farmers raise and harvest cash crops on 84 acres of Lambton County farmland and, in the past few years, have donated from $37,700 to $45,000 before the government match. Also, seed, application and local fuel companies donate their products and services. Money to cover remaining costs comes in part from 10 area churches.

The Fraser Valley farming community in southwestern British Columbia opted to do it differently. Led by Rob Brandsma, a local building contractor, the community holds the annual Make A Difference Sale at the McClary Stockyards sales facility on the third Thursday in March. The event raised over $154,000 last year and $145,000 this year, before the match. Located about 45 minutes east of Vancouver, the auction pulls donated farm goods from as far as 100 miles away. Local farm suppliers donate straw, feed or the use of free farm equipment, while the local bank feeds everyone who attends.

Aligned Programs

Should current efforts to revise U.S. Food for Peace requirements become law, bill sponsors believe the program’s responsiveness to emergency food crises will improve significantly. Support for the reforms from U.S. farm groups, however, is mixed; the American Farm Bureau Federation supports the change, and the National Association of Wheat Growers opposes it. It also remains to be seen if the money allocated to the Emergency Food Security Program will carry over into Food for Peace, if, indeed, changes to Food for Peace are made.

No matter the programs’ methods, farmers in both countries remain proud of the work they do for those in need. “It’s a Christian response to people in other parts of the world being hungry,” says Koetsier of his efforts. “Farming is what we do, and that’s a way we can share what we do with those who are in need.” 

Editor’s note: All dollar figures have been converted to U.S. currency, as of July 2018.