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How the U.S. Farm Bill Keeps Food Off West African Plates

Local sourcing of food aid would save $500 million a year and meet the needs of an additional 17 million hungry mouths. It's time for a change.

Married young and a mother at 17, Etta Brahim Senussi tries to enjoy the simple pleasures her children bring to her life in parched Andrabad in northern Chad—even as trouble looms. "When my kids are having fun, when they're not hungry, when they jump left, right, and center, that's the most pleasure I get," she said.

But with rain in short supply, Etta worries for the future. Across the Sahel region of West Africa, where Etta lives, 18 million people are at risk of hunger. Low rainfall and water levels, poor harvests, lack of pasture, and high food prices are all contributing to a food crisis. This phenomenon is far from new. In fact, this particular crisis is more challenging because people in Etta’s community are still recovering from the last food crisis, which hit just two years ago and affected 10 million people across the region.

Sometimes it's hard to know what the word crisis even means. In a "normal" year in the Sahel about 300,000 children—the population of Pittsburgh—die as a result of malnutrition. Lack of investment in small farmers in the region, unfair trade policies, political instability, and an increasingly unpredictable climate leave communities highly vulnerable to even minor weather disruptions. This crisis is a symptom of the broader challenges facing our global food system.

Many of these challenges stem from the $300 billion behemoth U.S. Farm Bill written by Congress every five years. The Farm Bill shapes our food system and affects practically everything grown and eaten here in the United States, but it also has global ramifications. Farm Bill policies can help put food on Etta's plate or leave her family hungry.

In this year’s Farm Bill there is a crucial opportunity to reform how the United States handles international food aid programs. Simple reforms would enable aid agencies to reach millions more people when crises like the one emerging in the Sahel occur and they would not cost taxpayers a dime. In fact, reform could save taxpayers up to $500 million per year.

Wasteful regulations, written into law to protect special interests, prevent food aid from being purchased locally and regionally, even when it is a more affordable and effective way to save lives. Purchasing food aid this way can meet immediate needs while helping to build long-term sustainable local food systems in communities like Etta’s so they will not need aid in the future. Simple reforms to remove the restrictions could help reach up to 17 million more people with life-saving aid, at no additional cost. Frankly, it’s a no-brainer.

For Etta and the nearly one billion people who go hungry around the world, the food system—manipulated by big agribusiness and special interests—simply doesn't function. As with any policy, big moneyed backers are fighting to maintain their interests in the Farm Bill. The voices of people like Etta who feel the brunt of our policies, but have little recourse to change them, are barely heard.

Changing food aid rules will not fix our Farm Bill overnight. But achieving the big, structural changes our food system desperately needs will require active and engaged citizens who are willing to stand up for what’s right. Reforming food aid is a good place to start.

For more information and opportunities for action visit Oxfam America.

Photo via (cc) flickr USAID_IMAGES

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