WASHINGTON — Despite a decade of bipartisan support from two presidents and key lawmakers, efforts to change the U.S. international food aid program in order to prevent wasting potentially hundreds of millions of dollars a year – and avoid long delivery delays – repeatedly have died in Congress.

The main reason: a loose coalition of special interest groups dubbed the Iron Triangle. These are the groups that profit from the business of providing U.S. food aid around the world – the growers and processors, transporters and shippers and private volunteer organizations that hand it out on the other end.

Though small and declining in number, these groups – and their lobbyists and benefactors in Congress – have largely succeeded in protecting their share of the estimated $1.4 billion in annual agricultural appropriations that Congress approves for Food for Peace, the centerpiece of U.S. international food aid programs administered through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Cornell economist and food aid expert Christopher B. Barrett blames Congress for that, saying it has allowed the U.S. food aid program to become a public subsidy for U.S. for-profit companies, at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable populations, including people who are starving and those reeling from disasters and conflict.

“Those who are enjoying access to the public purse want to continue to feed from that; and the fact that they’re effectively crowding out starving children in disaster-affected areas for some reason doesn’t seem to bother them and remarkably doesn’t bother our elected representatives,’’ says Barrett, the co-author of “Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role.”

“Personally,” he adds, “I think it’s a moral outrage.”

Critics, including every USAID administrator since the Reagan administration, say the U.S. food aid program has fallen far short of what it could be accomplishing because of the special interest protections enacted by Congress.

The requirement that the food come from U.S. suppliers and shippers tacks months of delays onto the effort to provide aid, which is especially damaging and often deadly during emergencies. It also adds an estimated several hundred millions of dollars a year in added shipping and other logistical costs, according to a Medill/USA Today investigation.

In early 2013, the Obama administration – like the Bush administration before it – unveiled an ambitious plan to free the U.S. food aid program from some of its decades old requirements and give USAID more flexibility.

The new plan would have allowed USAID to buy as much as 45 percent of the commodities as close as possible to crisis zones overseas to save transportation costs and delays, and to give others vouchers or cash transfers in order to buy food themselves. Numerous U.S. government studies have proposed that, and it’s the way virtually every other country, and the United Nations, administer food aid.

“The truth is that for years our practice in food assistance has lagged behind our knowledge,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said in an April 10, 2013 speech unveiling the reform proposal. He noted that more than 30 studies over the past decade have “revealed inefficiencies in the current system.”

Such “bold and meaningful action” is needed, Shah said, to save Food for Peace from becoming irrelevant at the very time it is needed most to respond to rising hunger fueled by global conflict, climate change and other problems.

The Obama proposal acknowledged the interests of the constituencies that comprise the Iron Triangle, and the need to preserve American jobs that have come to rely on the 60-year-old U.S. food aid pipeline, according to Shah and other USAID officials. They said the reforms would save potentially thousands of lives overseas and feed an additional two to four million people a year on the same budget by being more efficient and effective. But they would also proactively involve those groups that have long formed the logistical backbone of the U.S. food aid effort, in some cases through new roles, Shah and other USAID officials said.

Even so, two separate legislative attempts to enact parts of the Obama proposal died in Congress over the past 15 months, in each case after aggressive lobbying by the Iron Triangle, according to documents and interviews.

Former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios isn’t surprised. “The restrictions on USAID and the special interest protections enshrined in the law have hampered food aid programming since its inception,” he said.

A decade of attempts

Efforts to address problems within Food for Peace began decades ago, when government and private sector studies pointed out the potentially vast savings that could be gleaned from “untying” U.S. food aid from American suppliers and shippers.

They ramped up significantly in 2001 when President George W. Bush appointed Natsios to be head of USAID. A decade earlier, Natsios had been the relief agency’s point person for several African famines, and had seen firsthand how much time and money was being wasted in the system, and how many people died as a result of the delays.

In 2005, Natsios and the Bush administration proposed allowing more flexibility to purchase as much as 25 percent of the products locally. But he said lobbyists for the Iron Triangle persuaded lawmakers to kill the proposal, saying it would hurt American businesses and cost thousands of jobs. That effort, although ultimately unsuccessful, promoted “the largest crisis in the history of the food-aid program,” one top aid organization executive said at the time.

Key players in the battle for food aid reform

U.S. food aid Private Volunteer Organizations (PVOs)

Ellen Levinson

Executive director of the Global Alliance for Food Security

An advocate for the current system, Levinson heads a coalition of more than a dozen like-minded PVOs. Though she opposed the reforms contained in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget proposal, she acknowledges that it has become an issue of when, not if a portion of the Food for Peace budget becomes available as cash, and that it would be better to pass a farm bill with modest reforms than not pass a new bill at all. “I think that would be destructive, for every program in the farm bill but for food aid too,” Levinson said. Her group opposes extending a previous version of the Farm Bill as was done last year because without multi-year policy they have a harder time planning multi-year programs. Levinson’s group prefers the House language in the farm bill and would like to see the program continue to be based in commodities.

Eric Munoz

Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam, one of the largest international aid organizations

One of the most divisive issues among PVOs is the process of monetization —a process where the U.S. government donates commodities to aid groups, who then sell them in the local market as a way to fund their local development programs, rather than just getting cash up front. A U.S. government study showed that monetization cost $219 million over a three year period. “This is an absolute sham,” Munoz says of monetization. “It’s an absolute waste. … These programs are important, they are good programs but we shouldn’t be paying for them through monetization.” Oxfam has long supported abolishing monetization and making a portion of the Food for Peace budget available as cash instead.


Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, United States Congressman

Royce has been one of the leaders of reform efforts, first proposing legislation in May 2013 with Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., that would have created significant changes and again in June with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY., with a proposal to allow up to 45 percent of cash flexibility in the budget. Royce is also a member of the farm bill committee and supported Senate language that was most similar to his previous proposals – but which didn’t pass (details to come). “By enacting these bipartisan, commonsense food aid reforms, we can do more with less - we can feed more starving people, more quickly, at a lower cost,” he said. “In the current fiscal environment, the question should not be 'why do we need reform?' It should be, 'why have we waited so long?'"

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.

United States Congressman

“The proposal to cash out the Food For Peace program, instead of sending American food, [and] send American dollars, makes no political sense at all,” Garamendi. “It would only be a short period of time before this program is seen as yet another flow of American dollars off to some part of the world to be misused and abused and the support would quickly evaporate for what is absolutely essential.” Garamendi was one of 220 members of the House that voted against the Royce-Engel amendment that would have allowed up to 45 percent cash flexibility.


Devry Boughner

Director of international business relations at Cargill

Cargill, agriculture industry giant, sold $86.5 million worth of food aid products to the American government in 2012, including corn, wheat and flour for the Food For Peace program. Despite those sales Cargill supports reforms that would move the system away from sending American food products, including increased flexibility by allowing cash. “The system as it is now doesn’t necessarily provide all the flexibility that it needs to,” said Boughner. “There is a better system that can be created.”

Paul Green

North American Millers Association

The North American Millers Association, an advocacy group representing U.S. food processors has signed multiple letters to Congress, including one in March 2013, opposing reform of the system. They believe that a move away from in-kind food donations and diminished involvement of the American farmer and food processor would hurt the program’s funding levels. “There is a big difference emotionally, both [for] appropriators and the American people, whether we’re giving from the bounty of American agriculture or we’re giving cash money,” said Green, export specialist at the association.

Maritime interests: Unions, ocean carriers and merchant marines

Clint Eisenhauer

USA Maritime, a coalition of carriers and maritime unions

Like many in the maritime industry, Eisenhauer fears that moving to even a partially cash-based system means the loss of thousands of jobs and security at home. “Those mariners are absolutely critical to national defense because we need those mariners who are American born, American bred and have the interest of America and the national security interests of American at heart,” he said. In times of need the U.S. Merchant Marine is capable of assisting the military overseas, though there is disagreement over how frequently assistance is requested or needed.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

United States Congressman

A strong advocate for maritime interests, Cummings opposes most reform out of concern for unintended consequences and American job losses. “For nearly 6 decades, the Food for Peace Program has used U.S. taxpayer funding to benefit those in need around the world as well as the U.S. merchant marine and U.S. agricultural interests. This program is not unlike any of a number of "buy America" programs that ensure the expenditure of U.S.-taxpayer dollars supports the interests of U.S. taxpayers,” he said. Cummings was one of dozens of lawmakers that signed letters in support of continuing the current program.

Government agencies

Rajiv Shah

USAID administrator

The Obama administration’s proposal in 2013 would have dramatically altered the Food for Peace program. More than anything else, USAID wants the flexibility that it says is only possible by allowing it to provide cash or vouchers to recipients overseas. That’s a tool it currently doesn’t have. “This year, 155,000 fewer children will receive support in Somalia because we do not have enough flexibility to use cash to address the ongoing emergency in areas where our food aid cannot go,” said Shaw. “Each one of these children—even if only moderately malnourished—is 3 to 4 times more likely to die than a well-nourished child.”

One of the strongest defenders of the current system is Ellen Levinson and her Alliance for Global Food Security, which represents more than a dozen international aid groups like World Vision and Feed the Children.

In interviews, Levinson acknowledged fighting many of the changes proposed by the Obama administration, but said she did so because some of those purported reforms would only make a complicated and imperfect system worse.

By shifting the emphasis away from American suppliers and shippers, she said, Congress would be less likely to fund the program at all. And while some local purchase may be necessary, voucher programs would reduce “the accountability of our precious food assistance dollars,” she wrote in a June 2013 op-ed piece.

Bush continued to push for reform in his second term, including changes that targeted a U.S. “cargo preference” law that required 75 percent of food aid to be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels – even though they charge higher rates than other shipping firms.

So did some congressional lawmakers, including then-Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, the longtime top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Those seeking change were able to get two victories in 2008. One was the establishment of a pilot project that allowed $60 million dollars of food to be purchased in local and regional markets overseas from 2008 through 2012 in order to study its effectiveness. The other was a separate pot of up to $300 million a year in International Disaster Assistance funds to support local and regional procurement of food and cash transfers and vouchers, mostly for emergencies.

And in 2012, the cargo preference requirement was cut, requiring 50 percent of the food be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. A provision more recently passed in the House as part of Coast Guard appropriations would raise the requirement back to 75 percent.

In early 2013, the Obama administration launched a major push for more substantive reform as part of its annual budget, in part because transportation costs were cutting so deeply into the U.S. food aid program, according to Danielle Mutone-Smith, USAID’s acting policy team leader.

Taking Bush’s proposal a step further, Obama’s plan would shift as much as 45 percent of taxpayer funds to local and regional procurement and cash transfers and vouchers.

Some key lawmakers in Congress immediately pledged to join forces with the White House, including Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY)—chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “After nearly 60 years of experience, we are encouraged by the President’s proposal to fundamentally alter our food aid program to reach more people, more quickly, at less cost,” they said in a joint statement.

Participants in the Iron Triangle caught wind of those efforts and began mobilizing. Some launched a behind-the-scenes lobbying and public relations blitz, others held glitzy “public awareness events” and wrote a flurry of letters and held meetings with key lawmakers.

On Feb. 13, 2013, a coalition of several dozen farming, shipping and aid groups wrote an open letter to Obama saying that the U.S. food aid program was working just fine the way it was. “Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping, and transporting nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine, essential to our national defense sealift capability, and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in alternative foreign aid programs,” they wrote.

The groups enlisted the support of a bipartisan group of influential lawmakers that they’ve given a significant amount of political contributions to, especially those on maritime committees like Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. In April of that year, 28 of those lawmakers wrote a similar letter to Obama warning about the dangers of such cuts in U.S. supplied and shipped food aid.

The first legislative effort, by Royce and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., would have removed the requirement that food be bought from U.S. suppliers, exempted food aid shipments from cargo preference laws and required that non-emergency programs find alternate forms of funding – essentially taking aim at all three sides of the Iron Triangle.

That bill was killed in committee, but not before Bass got an earful from her fellow lawmakers who said such reform efforts would hurt their districts and American jobs, especially in the shipping industry. In an interview, Bass acknowledged that her bill was politically dead on arrival, and that due to the organized opposition, it “would have moved the reform process much further than was actually feasible at that time.”

Royce and Engel then teamed up on a more limited effort that left cargo preference and non-emergency funding intact, but like the President’s plan proposed allowing 45 percent of the food aid budget to be spent on local purchase, vouchers or cash. That lost in the House 220-203 in a June 19, 2013 vote and wasn’t considered in the Senate.

Supporters of the shipping industry happily take credit for those defeats, saying they successfully educated lawmakers about their concerns, including the need to save U.S. jobs, according to documents and interviews.

“We got wind that the administration was going to propose a total change in the program. We immediately jumped into action here on the Hill,” said Lee Kincaid, president of the American Maritime Congress, a lobbying group. “And as a result, [Obama’s proposal] didn’t fly in the budget.”

Supporters of the Obama proposal keep pushing for change, most recently focusing on inserting some watered down language into the massive Farm Bill that funds most U.S. food aid programs.

But the Iron Triangle mobilized again, urging lawmakers to reject any substantive changes to the status quo. “This food aid pipeline is critical to maintain and must not be dismantled,” the groups wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to the Farm Bill conferees.

One major food transporter, Liberty Maritime, spent $1.13 million on lobbyists in 2013, mainly to fight the proposed changes, according to lobbyist disclosure reports .

The newest version of the Farm Bill should have been passed by the end of September 2013 but political infighting required that an extension be made. That extension expired on January 15, leaving proposed changes to food aid up in the air.

The bill was eventually passed in February and though it fell short of previous reform efforts, it was seen by USAID as at least a minor victory.

“The reforms to the Food for Peace program, which has fed billions of hungry people around the world over the last six decades, will increase the impact of this life-saving assistance,” Shah said in a statement.

In addition to $80 million a year set aside for local purchase, the bill also limits monetization by increasing the amount of cash available for non-emergency programs.

In total, Shah estimates this will allow USAID to help an additional 600,000 people annually.

Looking forward, even the most ardent supporters of change predict that getting Congress to approve of any substantial change will be a slow and difficult process, given the powerful constituencies lobbying against it.

Royce said he will continue to push for reform because U.S. food aid needs to evolve along with the times. Food for Peace was created 60 years ago when price volatility threatened to undermine U.S. agriculture. That’s no longer the case, he said. U.S. agricultural exports also have increased, farm incomes are up and business at U.S. ports is booming.

“The subsidy provided to farmers and shippers through food aid can no longer be justified,” according to Royce. “With rising costs and declining budgets, it is more important than ever to stretch our aid dollars farther. In the current fiscal environment, the question should not be ‘why do we need reform?’ It should be, ‘why have we waited so long?’”

Stephanie Mercier, a former Senate economist who worked on food aid issues, said that ultimately, the possibility of change comes down to who has better advocates in Congress – American farmers and shippers who vote and contribute to campaigns, or starving people living overseas who don’t.

When members of Congress weigh helping one group versus helping the other, she said, “A lot of them tend to lean towards ones that actually vote in their states rather than ones that live across the ocean.”