USA Maritime members are the internationally trading United States flag carriers, labor unions, and associations that compose today’s deep water U.S. Merchant Marine. We were disappointed to see the one-sided and factually inaccurate presentation of the Food for Peace program in the recent USA Today article “Hunger pains: U.S. food program struggles to move forward” which appeared online September 26, 2014.
The article’s authors state that an argument for the food aid program’s U.S.-flag shipping requirement is that it “supports the Merchant Marine—a commercial shipping network originally intended as a backup for the U.S. Navy, though its not often deployed that way.” This is false. The cargo provided to the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine under the Food for Peace program at U.S. Maritime Administration regulated rates is essential to sustaining the fleet, as the largest single source of peacetime government-impelled cargo. This is the same fleet that our nation turns to first in times of war and national emergency. Contrary to the suggestion that the U.S. Merchant Marine is a “backup” which is “not often deployed” in support of national objectives, the men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine provided over 95% of the sealift capacity in support of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Defense relies upon the U.S. Merchant Marine for sealift, and this public-private partnership saves taxpayers over $13 billion versus having to purchase and maintain gray-hulled government assets for sealift. Moreover, economists Promar International concluded that the transportation and shipment of food aid alone—not counting farm jobs—supports 33,000 American jobs.
The article also mischaracterizes the facts insofar as it suggests that ocean shipping costs consume a large and increasing portion of the food aid budget which would be saved if we purchased food overseas or just gave out cash instead of shipping American food to those in need. U.S. flag shipping costs have not increased in recent years. In fact, the requirement to use U.S. ships for the carriage of international aid was dramatically reduced several years ago and as a result taxpayers may soon face additional costs to maintain U.S. sealift capability. Ocean shipping costs have historically been only about 10% of Food for Peace program costs, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation—far less than the share of transportation costs in a normal commercial shipment. The real culprit in food aid program costs is not ocean shipping, but what USAID opaquely calls “inland transportation shipping and handling” and “Section 202(e)” costs. These costs consume approximately 40% of the program budget and are used on things like administrative overhead, branding and marking, banking costs, trucking and inland distribution, and staff costs. These costs will not be avoided, but increased, by sending cash overseas in the form of voucher programs, which are much more complicated and costly to implement per ton of food delivered, according to USAID data.
The authors mischaracterize Food for Peace and the United States aid system at large as an outdated relic, stating that “virtually every other aid-giving country” provides flexible cash-based assistance instead of food. The truth is, because of the broad constituent base that underpins U.S. food aid, the United States provides far more aid to fight global hunger than the other countries combined. Nor has the U.S. aid system remained static. Congress and successive administrations have continually updated and amended the program scores of times since its inception, constantly evolving to meet the needs of beneficiaries. Food for Peace is just one tool among many in the Federal Government’s arsenal of programs to fight global hunger and instability. Today, Food for Peace is dwarfed by the many other State Department programs that send cash overseas, such as International Disaster Assistance, Developmental Assistance, and the Economic Support Fund which can be used to transfer cash directly to beneficiaries in developing countries overseas or to purchase aid from foreign-growers in lieu of American farmers. USAID has flexibility.
Food for Peace is unique among foreign aid programs because it’s sourced right here in America, starting with tax-paying American farmers and growers, reliably carried overseas by our U.S. Merchant Mariners, and implemented by American private voluntary and faith-based organizations working on the ground. Food for Peace is also unique because of its simplicity and transparency: U.S. workers are paid a fair wage to be sure that the wholesome U.S. food commodities get to those in need overseas. In contrast, the other programs which dominate American foreign aid send American tax dollars overseas instead of food, even though the article frankly admits that USAID “lacks the kind of basic oversight needed to track and evaluate them.”
James L. Henry