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Medill Reporters Expose Troubled U.S. Food Aid Program

Investigation of international effort sheds new light on inefficiency, waste and politics

  • Long travel times, bureaucracy potentially deprive millions of sustenance
  • Expensive and time consuming congressional mandates hamper food aid efforts
  • Problems extend far beyond special interest protections imposed by Congress

EVANSTON, Ill --- The U.S. food aid program, which works to help starving and malnourished people worldwide, is wasteful and suffers from serious and widespread problems that undermine aid for potentially millions of would-be recipients, according to a three-month investigation led by a reporting team from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Reporting from Syrian refugee camps, impoverished African villages and throughout the U.S., the team of graduate student reporters found that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spends more on the delivery of the food than it does on the food itself, due to a deeply entrenched system of special interests and government bureaucracy. USAID spent more than $9 billion in taxpayer dollars from 2003 to 2012 on transportation and other logistics, or more than half of its food assistance budget, according to the investigative report.

By contrast, USAID spent $7.4 billion on the food, making it by far the largest and, experts say, most inefficient humanitarian aid program in the world. 

The Medill National Security Reporting Project was done in collaboration with USA TODAY.

The findings are based on interviews with dozens of U.S. officials and experts, field reporting on three continents and an unprecedented Medill analysis of internal government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The report, “Hunger Pains: The Problem-plagued U.S. Food Aid Program Faces an Uncertain Future,” is a comprehensive series of print, video and interactive stories. As part of its partnership with Medill, USA TODAY is also publishing a version of the multimedia project on USA TODAY, which also links to the Medill site.

“The students have shown what can go wrong and what has gone wrong, even in the most well-intentioned government programs -- those designed to save the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations,” said Josh Meyer, project leader and director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, which awarded scholarships for the Washington-based reporting project. 

The scholarships and the initiative itself are funded through a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

“This project is a true public service in every sense of the word, and accountability journalism of the highest order,” Meyer added.

“USA TODAY was honored to play a role in the project,” said Susan Weiss, executive editor for enterprise and investigations. “The Medill students shed light on the little-watched area of U.S. food aid, learning critical data and investigative skills in the process.”

The student reporting team found that virtually every other aid-giving country and the United Nations, which helps coordinate them, purchases critically needed grains, oils and other commodities as close to a crisis or famine zone as possible. Many also give cash transfers or vouchers instead of sacks of food. This saves money and precious time getting aid to the young, the elderly, the sick and families in crisis.

But for 60 years, Congressional mandates -- spurred by special interest lobbying -- have required that most American commodities sent by USAID and its flagship food aid program Food for Peace, be purchased from U.S. suppliers and transported thousands of miles on U.S.-flagged ships, even when cheaper and faster alternatives exist.

The journey can take seven months; by then, the food may be rotted, infested or too late to be of much help.

\"People [have] died waiting for the food to arrive because of the very long logistics chain that's required to get the food all the way from the United States to the location,\" says former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. \"And it's very expensive to move food over that distance.\"

Among the project’s other findings:  

  • USAID itself has fought for decades to overhaul the food aid programs. But most reform efforts have died in Congress despite bipartisan support from lawmakers and administrations, including the Obama administration
  • Problems in the USAID food aid program extend beyond the special interest protections imposed by Congress. Experts, including some U.S. food aid officials and consultants, have criticized the nutritional value of some key products and the effectiveness of a global system of prepositioning warehouses designed to speed food to victims
  • USAID also has been repeatedly blasted by the watchdog arm of Congress for lacking the kind of metrics it needs to determine whether its vast global network of food aid programs are working

“Hunger Pains” is the fourth in a series of annual investigative reporting efforts that are part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative. The initiative was established in January 2009 to provide journalists with the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately and innovatively on issues related to defense, security and civil liberties and to do so across all digital platforms.

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