Buying Local Halfway Across the Globe

As individuals, Americans are generous, often donating in response to crises abroad even while struggling to make ends meet at home. We tend to assume that our government's foreign aid is similarly altruistic. But is it?

October 16 is World Food Day, a good time to examine this assumption about U.S. food aid and begin to press for some much-needed improvements.

Meet Khalida Mahmoud, a 29-year-old woman whose farming family was driven into worsening poverty, after U.S. food aid poured into her home region of eastern Sudan. That's not how food aid is supposed to work, but just look at the policy: your tax dollars are used to buy grain from U.S. factory farms, the same giant corporations that already receive $26 billion in tax subsidies. Then the grain is transported halfway around the world, using thousands of gallons of fossil fuel and releasing tons of harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The transport typically takes months while hungry people grow more desperate.

Once the food finally arrives, it floods agricultural markets, destabilizing fragile local economies. Small farmers are the first to go bankrupt. Most of them are women like Khalida, who work small plots of land hoping to sell enough at market to buy cooking oil, flour, a bar of soap and a pair of shoes so a child can stay in school.

These women are more than the backbones of their families: they grow most of Africa's food. Unlike giant grain corporations, these women farm without fossil fuels and harmful chemicals. Their sustainable agriculture practices are critical to meeting the twin challenges of feeding people and protecting the planet. Khalida and millions of other small-scale women farmers are the people we want to support with our food aid programs. Instead, the policy undermines the livelihoods of those who hold the key to long-term food security in Africa.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution: the U.S. should buy food aid crops directly from local farmers in Africa. When the U.N. World Food Program did this, they were able to obtain 75 percent more corn to feed hungry families than when they purchased grain from factory farms in the U.S. Buying specifically from women farmers has an enormous added benefit. Studies consistently show that when poor women gain access to money, they use it to provide food, healthcare and education for their children.

Now is the perfect time to push for this innovative solution and Sudan is the best place to start. Here are three reasons why.

First, this fall, Congress will reform the 1961 U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which governs how food aid is purchased and administered. The new policy should recognize that even widespread hunger is invariably a localized crisis and that food aid crops should be purchased directly from women farmers in the regions targeted to receive assistance.

Second, for the first time ever, women farmers in Sudan have organized a union, enabling them to produce enough grains to provide at least a modest portion of the region's food aid. Sudan's Women Farmers Union is supported by MADRE, an international women's human rights organization, in partnership with a Sudanese group called Zenab for Women in Development.

Finally, in less than 100 days, Sudan will face a referendum that is likely to split the country in two, a potentially destabilizing vote that may lead to renewed violence, forced displacement and worsening hunger and poverty for thousands of families. At a time of impending crisis for Sudan, we can call for an improved U.S. food aid policy committed to buying local, sustainably grown crops from small-holder women farmers, giving them the resources they need to hold their communities together.

Last month, President Obama launched a new global development policy. In a speech at the United Nations, he said, "We must be more selective and focus our efforts where we have the best partners and where we can have the greatest impact." Using our food aid dollars to support small-holder women farmers is a chance to do just that.

This op-ed was originally distributed by the American Forum.

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