How the U.S. Became the World’s Largest Food-Aid Donor

For its first 150 years, the nation was reluctant to feed the hungry overseas.

A man standing on a dirt road next to several large bags of food with the American flag on them
Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis / Getty

The United States is, by far, the world’s largest international food-aid donor. Almost every year since the 1950s, it has been responsible for more than 50 percent of the billions of tons of food shipped from the parts of the world with a surplus to the parts of the world that are hungry. This episode, we ask: How did this situation come about, given that America spent its first 150 years of nationhood arguing against feeding people overseas? And, more importantly, is shipping sacks of corn from American ports really the best way to help people in need around the world? Listen in as we explore the curious story of how the United States started giving food—and why it’s so hard to stop.

Every December, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” rings out at malls and holiday parties across the United States and the United Kingdom. But that earworm of a song was actually originally written in response to the devastating famine in Ethiopia in the early 1980s—and it’s far from the famine’s only legacy. Both the hunger and the relief effort were so enormous that they defined a generation, and forced a major reevaluation of how food aid works. After Ethiopia, many countries decided that handing out cash or vouchers was a cheaper, quicker, and more effective way to feed the hungry, as opposed to literally giving food. Experts began to focus on whether the food itself was the right kind—whether it contained the right mix of nutrients to help malnourished kids recover. And an increasing number of governments refocused their aid efforts exclusively on emergency relief, rather than development.

The United States, however, remained committed to giving food as aid. This episode, we talk to Barry Riley, the author of The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence, in order to understand why the United States overcame its initial reluctance to feeding the hungry overseas, and explore the impact of its more recent career as the world’s largest food-aid donor. From surplus grain stored in retired battleships to Cold War maneuvers, America’s history has set up its enduring role as the largest provider of food, rather than money. Meanwhile, we check in with the seasoned food-aid professionals Bea Rogers and Patrick Webb at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University to investigate what the latest science can tell us about the best way to feed hungry people.

The answers are complex and often counter-intuitive, but they matter more than ever: The world is suffering from both a vast surplus of food, with grains stockpiled in hangars and silos amid a global glut, as well as widespread hunger, with more than a million people at risk of famine. Of course, food aid is just a part of the problem—or the solution—but shouldn’t we make sure we’re doing it right?

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.