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Harvest goes on even when disaster rages across Lake Roosevelt on the Colville Reservation. This was taken in 2019 with S.P. Jensen harvesting.
Photo by Daleen Jensen

WestBred

POLICY

FOOD FOR AID

Growers travel to Kenya, Tanzania to see how U.S. commodities are helping feed the world

March 2020
By Trista Crossley


The idea of food aid is easy to understand. The actual nuts and bolts of food aid, however, are a little more complicated.

Back in November, a group of U.S. farmers and agricultural stakeholders from the wheat, barley, rice and sorghum industries set out on a two-week trip to Kenya and Tanzania to learn how food aid from the U.S., including grain, is sent to recipients in need, and how that food is distributed. Nicole Berg, past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, treasurer of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and a Benton County farmer, took part in the trip.

“This trip was an effort to educate U.S. farmers as well as policy folks in D.C. to have a better understanding of what food aid is, what it does, where it goes, and what it looks like,” Berg said.

Molly O’Connor, a trade and food policy advisor for NAWG, helped plan the trip. She said food aid is a policy and a program that is often talked about, and advocacy groups, such as NAWG, have policies and advocate for it, but most people haven’t seen it in action.

“This was an educational trip so that not only could growers see the things we talk about in the field, but policy staff and the growers could better understand the nuances of the programs and come back with personalized stories to share why these programs are important and why supporting them in the future continues to be one of our priorities,” she said.

Before taking off for Kenya, the 11-member group gathered in Washington, D.C., for a briefing with USAID, the federal agency that’s primarily responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance to other countries, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers a few food aid programs and who provided a grant that funded the trip. Once in Nairobi, Kenya, the group met with staff from USAID and the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service at the U.S. Embassy to learn how U.S. aid comes into the country and some of the barriers the staff has to work through to get that aid. They also met past Cochran Fellows who are local to Kenya. The Cochran Fellowship Program provides training to agricultural professionals in middle-income and emerging economies to help boost domestic production and build trade capacities.

One of the stops on the trip was at the Kakuma refugee camp in the northwestern part of Kenya, which receives food aid through USAID’s Food for Peace program. The refugee camp was established in 1992, and as of August 2019, there were more than 191,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the camp and a nearby settlement. The group met with camp leaders and the World Food Program staff that oversees the refugee camp before getting a first-hand look at how U.S. aid and aid from other countries is actually being used at the camp.

“All of us farmers talk about the food that we donate, and so one thing I wanted to see was where does it go? What does it do?” Berg said, adding that the difference between life in the U.S. and in the refugee camp was like night and day. “Many of us don’t worry about what we are going to eat tomorrow in the U.S., but in Kakuma and other areas of Kenya, they worry every day about what they are going to eat. I was proud of the U.S. for what we do to help refugee camps. In D.C., there’s this perception that farmers don’t necessarily want to donate to third-world countries, we just want to sell wheat. That’s not true. Farmers are here to help the world and feed the world in one manner or another, whether thorough food aid or purchases. We feed the world. We are here to feed the world.”

One of the biggest debates in foreign food aid revolves around the idea of sending cash and vouchers instead of food to countries in need. Berg said she came away from the trip understanding that they need both—the food to eat and the money to help them establish a market to buy other goods and services.

“The conversations in this industry are about this idea of do we support the U.S. giving money or a big bag of wheat? I came away realizing it’s not an either/or, it’s both,” she said. “I personally have always thought we could just give the wheat and move on, but if you are going to get a third-world country to a level of sustainability so they can purchase wheat, they are going to need both. I’ve also heard folks say let’s just give food aid, not teach Africa how to farm because then they’ll be self-sustainable and will never buy our products. That statement isn’t true. The more self-sufficient they become, the more they’ll be able to buy our high quality products.”

O’Connor said being able to show growers the different types of U.S. aid—in-kind food aid vs. monetization—was valuable and helped them understand how different kinds of aid helps different segments of the population. The people in the refugee camp needed the food, but by investing in mills and other infrastructure, U.S. aid was laying a foundation for a possible future trading partner.

“(At the) refugee camp, that experience for me and the growers to see people who had to flee their homes for a variety of reasons and figure out what life looks like next…a lot of those people, when told that these were farmers from America, they were very grateful and thankful. It is humbling to see what food security outside of the U.S. looks like,” she said.

While in Kenya, the group traveled to Mombasa to visit a port where container ships come in and food is unloaded and stored in a World Food Program warehouse. At the same location, they also visited a grain importer that imports bulk commodities from around the world, including wheat from Canada. One of the biggest barriers Berg saw that U.S. food aid has to navigate is transportation.

“I’m not saying its right or wrong, but all food aid coming from the U.S. has to go on a U.S. flagged ship, and they are more expensive than other ships,” she said. “That is one barrier that makes food aid more expensive for the U.S. to get it there.”

In Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the group visited a high-tech mill that processes some monetized wheat from USDA’s Food for Progress program, but also mills wheat for commercial sales across Africa. The mill generally purchases wheat from the Black Sea Region or #2 wheat from Canada because, although they like U.S. wheat, it is too expensive. That day wrapped up with a visit to a commercial bakery where Berg said everything was done by hand all the way through packaging the products.

The final days of the tour involved visiting several animal feed mills and poultry farms that had received monetary assistance through USDA. One extremely high-tech feed mill had received a loan to help expand their facilities to diversify their poultry feed business. Then the group went to another feed mill on the other end of the scale that was still building their capacity and had received assistance to build a new processing site with high-tech equipment. Construction was ongoing during the visit. Berg said she asked the implanting partner why businesses that were struggling or just starting out didn’t get prioritized. The answer, she said, was they need to diversify the economic portfolio of who they help as the mills reach different agriculture producers in the country.

O’Connor said when they were putting the group together, they made a point to include as many women as men, because in Africa, most of the small-holder farmers are women, and much of the food chain is administered by women. Having a diverse group (both in gender and age) allowed for different conversations to be had. O’Connor said she hopes the farmers on the trip went home and talked to other farmers about the importance of U.S. food aid, why those programs exist and about the people they impact.

“It’s not just statistics on paper. These are people American farmers are having an impact on,” she said. “And when they (the farmers) come to Washington, D.C., they can now talk about importance of these programs from their personal observations from the field. We saw the difference U.S. commodities made to the people at the refugee camp and how grateful they were to have access to high quality food when they were once unsure when the next meal would come, which is something most Americans cannot relate to. It is important that these programs continue to exist and be funded so that the U.S. can continue to be a leader to help those in need.”

Berg said she came away from this trip realizing just how big the world is, and what a great place the U.S. is to live in. “I was very humbled to be asked to go on this trip,” she said. “Hopefully, I can come back as an ambassador to talk about different parts of world, and how food aid has progressed and will continue to progress.”