A (tentative) win for food justice activists!

Originally posted on the blog of the Brooklyn Food Coalition.

This looks good.

As part of the 2014 Budget Request released last week, President Obama included a proposal that would overhaul America’s international food aid system. It’s not a perfect proposal and it still needs to be approved by Congress, but it’s a huge leap forward.

Right now, the U.S. has a well-intentioned yet wildly inefficient food aid system. Unlike other donor countries, the U.S. ships food from here rather than donating money to purchase food available in or near disaster-stricken countries. As a way of unloading surplus grain, this system works well. As a smart, efficient way of responding to humanitarian crises, it’s atrocious.

Food shipped from the U.S. can take up to three months longer to arrive than food purchased regionally. This means that while the food is making its way over the ocean, millions of people are dying. And when it finally arrives, it can undercut local farmers, driving them even further into poverty and creating a vicious cycle of dependency for developing countries. Finally, the current system is expensive and wasteful. Shipping food from the U.S. can cost upwards of 25% more than purchasing food locally, with more than half of our food aid grain dollars consumed by shipping and overhead.

President Obama’s proposal would change all of this. First of all, under the reforms, almost half of emergency food aid (45%) may be purchased in local markets. Second, the reforms would end monetization, a practice in which NGOs sell American relief food in local markets in order to fund some of their ongoing development programs, like clinics and schools. Per the Government Accountability Office, monetization is wasteful — it costs an average of 25 cents on every taxpayer dollar spent on food aid — and pits American NGOs against local farmers.

If President Obama’s proposal is passed by Congress, the U.S. will be able to reach more people – including an estimated four million more hungry children – every year, without spending an additional dime. In fact, the Obama Administration estimates the proposal will save $500 million over the next decade.

For the past two years, as a volunteer and then as a Kol Tzedek Fellow, I’ve been working with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to bring about many of the reforms President Obama proposed last week. We collected signatures and postcards here in New York that petitioned the President and Congress for change. I remember apologetically handing 80 signed postcards to Senator Gillibrand’s staffer, thinking, “She must be so annoyed with more postcards to deal with,” when she thanked me, saying earnestly, “We count each and every one of these.” We met with local representatives, sometimes to their surprise. Rep. Yvette Clarke looked at us and said, “I get a lot of requests…but this is the first meeting where a group of Jews from Brooklyn asked me to do something for Haitian farmers”. We spoke, wrote, and taught about the issue in forums large and small. And, last month, we went to DC and lobbied our representatives.

Admittedly, the reforms are not a perfect fix. Under President Obama’s proposal, up to 45% of emergency food aid can be locally and regionally procured. This is a strong start, but in the long run we’re hoping for 100% flexibility. And, of course, we can’t call this a victory until it gets the approval of Congress. But these reforms signal big change – less hunger, less dependency, support for local farmers, and a healthier and more sustainable food system for all.

For more information, check out this article in The Guardian, as well as AJWS’s public statement. To show the Obama Administration your support for his bold actions, click here.

Karin Fleisch, a food security consultant, is an MPA candidate at NYU Wagner and a Kol Tzedek Fellow at American Jewish World Service.