U.S. food aid provides emergency life-saving calories to 46.5 million people around the globe. But with some food emergencies now lingering for years, the USAID food program faces challenges such as nutrient deficiencies, higher costs for specialized food supplements and inadequate packaging for rugged conditions during shipment.
Last year, the U.S. government spent almost $2.3 billion to provide 2.5 million metric tons of food aid around the globe. The majority of the funding went to USAID-administered emergency programs, which fed more than 46 million people. USAID estimates demand for food aid will increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years.
The Government Accountability Office found  the USAID program designed for food emergencies now spends more than half of its funding to cover multi-year shortages that have become the norm. About 96 percent of the food aid supplied in 2010 went to 21 countries that have received U.S. food aid for four years or more.
During prolonged food shortages, recipients run the risk of developing serious nutrient deficiencies. All food program partners reported at least one nutrient deficiency in their beneficiaries such as iron, Vitamin A and iodine, the report said.
Special, fortified food can be shipped to those most vulnerable -- children under five, pregnant women and women who are nursing. But that food is more expensive, costing up to $0.24 per daily ration, or more than twice as much as the typical grain food rations supplied for short-term emergencies.
“Failure to effectively target more costly specialized food aid products to intended beneficiaries can undermine U.S. agencies’ and implementing partners’ efforts to improve beneficiaries’ nutritional status,” the GAO report said.
USAID plans to make specially-formulated food available but it lacks crucial information about how effectively the products boost childrens’ growth. Some studies of lipid-based food rations showed they promote weight gain in kids but don’t affect height, an important measure of a child’s nutritional health.
Another challenge for USAID is to improve packaging of food rations to withstand rugged conditions throughout the supply chain, especially for vegetable oil in tin cans and cornmeal in paper bags, the GAO said. A Tufts University survey revealed more than half the programs frequently received damaged food bags. Food aid bags are designed to be handled three or four times, but often go through eight or more hands before they reach a hungry recipient.
FAST FACT: Quality control is another problem in USAID food programs. In 2009, officials spent almost a year and spent an estimated $223,000 to dispose of U.S. food aid that had gone rancid.