A heated debate has begun over the way our country delivers food to "the least of these," and the passion and conviction of the evangelical community are needed in this conversation. Evangelicals proclaim the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated but does not yet fully reign in our world. Because we still live in this in-between space, men, women and children made in God's image continue to suffer all kinds of evil, manmade and otherwise. One such evil is hunger, all the more cruel when we consider our world produces enough food to sustain every one of God's image-bearers.
Today there are some 870 million image-bearers who are chronically hungry. We know the church cannot be a spectator while people starve to death, and thankfully, we are getting Christ's hands and feet dirty. There is also a growing consensus among evangelical leaders that the world's richest and strongest nation has a role to play. In fact, since the creation of our nation's food aid system in 1954, the U.S. has helped feed more than one billion people in over 150 countries, on less than half of one percent of the federal budget. Some evangelical relief and development organizations are on-the-ground implementers of U.S. aid, demonstrating a successful public-private partnership to reach people in need. Praise God for that!
For evangelicals, motivation to help the world's most vulnerable arises from knowing God's love and hearing God's call to partner with Him to advance His reign of abundance on earth as it is in heaven. And all Americans should be motivated by knowing that our nation's investments in food aid help create a more stable, safer, and prosperous world.
But we now live in a time of economic uncertainty and fiscal constraint, as our national debt ticks toward $17 trillion. So as evangelicals look at the federal budget and consider our nation's food aid program, do we advocate for feeding the hungry or for our government to live within its means? The answer is both. By reforming the way our country delivers food aid, we can more efficiently utilize American taxpayer dollars and feed more people. So if you care about hungry people or about fiscal accountability, or both, you'll want to take note. On the issue of food aid, evangelicals can be compassionate and conservative.
Why change our current system? While the U.S. is the world's most generous donor of food aid, our assistance is inefficient, wasteful and slow to reach people in need. Current law, dating from the 1950s, requires that almost all food aid be purchased from U.S. producers and shipped on U.S. vessels. The laws were originally designed to reduce agricultural surplus and feed hungry people around the world—a win-win. But times have changed. Higher food and shipping costs have contributed to a dramatic decline in the amount of food aid we deliver—nearly 70 percent less than a decade ago. With decades of research, experts now unanimously agree that purchasing locally-produced food from farmers in or near a food insecure region would be far more effective and provide faster relief. A recent USDA pilot program has validated this view, finding that local purchase resulted in food aid reaching people more than two months faster and at a significantly lower cost. For a starving child, two months makes all the difference.
In addition, the old "Give a man a fish…teach a man to fish" adage is insightful here. With our current food aid system, we are providing food for a day, maybe a month. But what happens after that? Compounding the problem, when U.S. commodities flood the local market, regional crop prices are depressed, and area farmers cannot compete. To build on the adage, not only are we not teaching a man to fish; we are giving him so many (U.S.-grown) fish that we risk putting his local fishermen out of business.
Contrast that with Americans coming alongside local leaders in a poor community, providing funds and technical expertise, and empowering them to build a sustainable food supply, infrastructure and economy. That kind of local ownership helps ensure the community will continue to thrive long after the Americans have left. This "smart compassion" is already happening all over the world, and many respected evangelical relief and development organizations are at the forefront. But our food aid policy works at cross-purposes. With very little flexibility to purchase commodities on the local market, we miss opportunities to foster sustainable development in the regions receiving aid.
The current administration has recently proposed reforms to U.S. food aid that would deliver life-saving help to millions more people in need, faster and at no additional cost to taxpayers. (In fact, the reforms would save an estimated $500 million over the next decade.) Michael Gerson, opinion writer for the Washington Post and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, disagrees sharply with President Obama on many issues. But he strongly supports the proposal, writing in a recent op-ed, "Efficiency in foreign aid should appeal to all members of Congress but to Republicans most of all."
In Congress, there is bipartisan support for the proposed reforms, but there is also bipartisan opposition. Powerful and influential agriculture and shipping interests are lobbying to maintain the status quo of government payments for their goods and services. The road ahead for food aid reform will not be easy. But nor is waiting two months for food to arrive. Our God—the Father of Jesus Christ and the One whose heart beats with love and justice for the poor—continues to care deeply whether His hungry children are fed. If we can feed more of His image-bearers, if we can feed them faster, and if we can do a better job helping them feed themselves—all while spending zero additional dollars—this is a campaign worthy of the conviction and passion of evangelicals.