In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed what was then known as the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, or Public Law 480. In 1961, the law got another name when President Kennedy expanded the program and renamed it “Food for Peace.”
JFK set out the logic for the program saying, “Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want.”
Yet the program has always had a purpose beyond the humanitarian one. As Eisenhower said, the legislation will “lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and people of other lands.”
In other words, let’s help our farmers at the same time as we help hungry people in places that might breed war and terrorism without our help.
Food for Peace was actually an outgrowth of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild war torn countries after World War II. So, in the early years, most of the food aid went to Italy, Japan, Germany, Austria, England and Finland.
Then, as those countries rebuilt and droughts, local wars and other emergencies developed in other places, the list of recipient countries changed and expanded. Recipient countries have included most of Europe, all of Africa, the Mid East, Asia, South and Central America, Mongolia and even Russia. Since 1954, 135 countries have received food through the program.
Farmer and ag lobbyist Don Reeves notes that the needs of others was not the only argument for the program – there were also large piles of surplus grain. “We had grain on the ground we didn’t know what to do with,” he says. “And there was a growing awareness of hungry people around the world. I mean, the first impulse is to get those things together, pronto!”
Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, India was the largest recipient of American food aid. The level of aid was highest in the 60s when over $1.5 billion in aid helped stave off starvation in the subcontinent. In addition to providing direct aid, the Food for Peace program worked closely with Green Revolution programs that introduced new varieties of wheat and rice to the country. Today, India is close to graduating from foreign food aid altogether.
In Ethiopia, cycles of drought and famine have repeated over the last 30 years. Each time, Food for Peace stepped in to alleviate the worst conditions, and recently scientists have learned how to predict the conditions that lead to famine. In 2003, Food for Peace actually began shipping commodities into the country before the crisis peaked and saved thousands of lives.
The largest part of the program is administered by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was also set up by President Kennedy. Over the years, the bulk of the money appropriated has gone to buy farm products from almost every one of the 50 U.S. states, shipping the commodities to the countries who need aid, and contracting with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to actually distribute the food to needy people. The program claims that 99 percent of the food aid arrives at its destination and is eaten by the people it was intended for.
In recent years, the program has emphasized longer-term development projects that build the agricultural ability of the recipient countries. In a sense, this is an extension of the Green Revolution approach to help countries become self-sufficient for their own food.
In the past 50 years, Food for Peace has sent 106 million metric tons overseas feeding billions of hungry people. That’s an average of a little over 2 million metric tons a year.
That may sound like a small amount, given the current world population of over 6.7 billion people. But, those 2 million metric tons of food actually fill the equivalent of 80,000 trucks each carrying five hundred 110-pound bags. Over 50 years, that’s enough trucks to stretch around the equator.