Here Are the U.S. States That Benefit Most From America's Wacky International Food-Aid Program

The U.S. buys and ships American grains to feed distressed nations. Some charity groups want to change that, but shippers say doing so will cost thousands of American jobs.

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People displaced by recent fighting in eastern Congo queue to receive aid food in Mugunga IDP camp outside of Goma on November 24, 2012. (James Akena/Reuters)

When a hungry child in a drought-stricken country gets an emergency bowl of cornmeal porridge, there's a good chance that corn was grown in the midwestern United States, packed into bags, shipped across the ocean on U.S. vessels, and distributed in the disaster zone by an American aid group.

Afterward, the charity organization might even sell some of the leftover corn in a nearby market in order to fund its other programs, like immunizations or maternal clinics.

Most people would agree that it's important for the U.S. to continue its food aid programs, which right now amount to roughly $1.5 billion every year, more than any other country in the world. But there's currently a fierce battle being waged over where exactly that food should come from and how it should be meted out.

On one side, a coalition of humanitarian groups hopes the 2014 federal budget -- which should be announced Wednesday -- changes the current, decades-old system run by the Department of Agriculture so that emergency food would instead be bought in the markets of the country it's intended to help, rather than in the U.S. This, proponents say, will be more efficient (no more shipping food over thousands of miles of ocean), better for local producers and growers, and less disruptive to the food economies of developing countries. According to Oxfam, simply buying these grains from say, Niger rather than Nebraska, would save so much money that aid groups could feed an extra 17 million people per year.

On the other side, some agribusinesses and the shipping lobby wish to keep food aid the way it is, arguing that eliminating the grow-pack-ship steps in the U.S. would cost thousands of jobs in the shipping and farming sectors, not to mention millions and sales and household earnings each year.

This has led to an awkward trade-off: Do we preserve more jobs at home, or do we feed more hungry people abroad?

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Here's a look at how the numbers stack up. A 2010 report by the research company Promar International found that the combination of handling, processing, and transporting commodities from farms to U.S. ports, plus the cost of transporting those products to foreign ports, adds up to $1,984,000,000 in output, $523,000,000 in earnings for households, and 13,127 jobs.

Texas would be the most heavily impacted state if we restructured food aid, followed by breadbasket states like Illinois and Iowa and rice growers like Louisiana:

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When combined with growers and shippers, Promar estimates that's somewhere between 16,000 and 33,000 jobs we'd lose if food aid was no longer mandated to be grown in the U.S. and sent abroad.

The economic impact could be dramatic for states with large farming sectors, according to 21 senators who wrote a letter to President Obama arguing against a change to the current aid program in February. It was signed by heavy hitters on both sides of the aisle, including Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls agriculture spending. 

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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