Food Aid: Help or Harm? Both.

Contradictions are popping up a lot around here lately: By now, you’ve likely heard AJWS say “U.S. food aid saves lives but it’s also causing more hunger.”  We’re often uncomfortable with contradictions like these, and instead, crave clear messages that we can embrace: hunger is bad. Aid is good. Too bad things can’t be that simple.

It turns out that food aid has been a complicated topic all the way back to biblical times, when the imprisoned patriarch Joseph was charged with devising a plan for avoiding a hunger crisis in Egypt. He decided to hoard food during the “seven years of plenty” and distribute it to hungry Egyptians during the “seven years of famine”—the world’s earliest example of in-kind food aid.

I had always learned this story in simplified terms that focused only on Joseph’s foresight and ingenuity. But a pair of AJWS Torah commentaries last week showed that, like our modern food aid, there are two sides to this story. Depending on which piece you read, you might have come away thinking that the forefather was either noble—or criminal.

The first of our publications on this story was a text study that focused on the positive. The Torah describes Joseph and his plan as “wise and discerning”—which the text study notes can inspire us all to be thoughtful in the way we provide for the poor. Giving tzedakah in a way that we know will make the greatest impact is an important lesson as our mailboxes fill up with requests from all kinds of charities at this time of year.

But on Tuesday, Dvar Tzedek fellow Sigal Samuel explored the shameful underbelly of the same iconic story. It turns out that Joseph’s plan saved a lot of lives but was a real long-term disaster for the starving Egyptian people. To get the grain he had stored, they had to pay by selling him their livestock, their land and, eventually, their freedom. Joseph’s “wise and discerning” plan turned out to be a recipe for enslaving an entire nation. It saved lives in the short term, but certainly didn’t stave off hunger and poverty in the future.

What are we to make of a biblical tale that can be taught in two such radically different ways? Was Joseph wise and discerning? Was he an oppressor?

The answer is both.

This discovery resonated for me, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the dual faces of AJWS’s Reverse Hunger campaign. On one hand, AJWS is urging Congress to protect U.S. food aid programs when it makes budget cuts. The U.S. is the largest global donor of food aid to countries in need, and this food aid saves lives—especially in places like Somalia, where people are desperate for food of any kind.

But on the other hand, we’re telling Congress that the U.S. food aid program is causing crushing dependency in developing countries. The current policy (outlined in the Farm Bill) requires that the U.S. send actual American-grown food to developing countries, rather than sending money to buy food grown nearby. In many places, the free food out-prices local farmers, destroys the local agricultural economy and forces people to become even more dependent on food aid. It’s a complex and vicious cycle.

Like the Joseph story, if you tell only one side of food aid you miss the big picture.

We have to urge our government to keep distributing food aid—but to do it better. We should be following the example of nearly every other international donor and stop shipping boat loads of American goods half way around the world when we could be buying it from struggling farmers in the regions we’re trying to help.

Because people worldwide are depending on us to plan wisely and implement with compassion. Without both, fighting hunger is just a dream.

Visit AJWS’s website to sign the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill. It’ll bring us one step closer to creating food aid policy that just helps people—period.