A Short History of U.S. International Food Assistance


For most of the twentieth century, food and agricultural commodities have served U.S. diplomatic efforts. As a surplus agricultural producer, the United States used its abundance to achieve foreign policy goals and objectives around the globe. The shape, scope, and scale of such efforts, however, changed to reflect evolving policy priorities and agendas of different administrations. While humanitarian sentiment often influenced such initiatives, since the 1970s it has become a driving mechanism in crafting development aid and humanitarian responses.


Since the early twentieth century, food aid has increasingly served as a component of U.S. foreign policy to help alleviate humanitarian crises. Following the First World War, the United States Government sought to contain the spread of Bolshevism in Eastern and Central Europe. It placed pressure on the Allied Powers to lift the wartime economic blockade of the defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Hungary). At the same time, Congress funded a massive U.S. Government food relief program. Directed by Herbert Hoover, food and agricultural supplies were sent to Europe, benefitting many, especially newly independent Poland. Although the program focused on providing foreign aid, the appropriation act also included several provisions intended to benefit U.S. producers, such as giving preference to American wheat for export.

Food aid did not become an ingrained element of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy until after the Second World War. In the mid-1940s, U.S. agricultural contributions were increasingly incorporated into multinational responses through such entities as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (Organization (FAO). However, the unilateral donations that characterized pre-1945 efforts remained and were strengthened. The U.S. Government initiated several short-term programs to provide food supplies to war-wrecked countries after 1945, including the Government and Relief in Occupied Areas (GARIOA) program and the Marshall Plan.

Post-war global recovery and the rise of a bi-polar Cold War world led to new U.S. initiatives in food aid. Earlier efforts to staunch the incursion of Communism were resurrected and enhanced by an accumulation of agricultural surpluses (thanks to agricultural innovation and increased output). On July 10, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, Public Law 480, creating the program which became known as Food for Peace. This program sought to divest the United States of accumulated agricultural surpluses, improve the domestic market, and stimulate new markets overseas.

The Food for Peace program authorized three categories of food aid. Title I permitted sales of agricultural surplus stocks to nations lacking food supplies on lenient loan terms in local currency. These funds were then used to finance U.S. diplomatic endeavors in recipient countries. The provisions outlined under Title II and Title III allowed for contributions to United Nations organizations, non-governmental organizations, and government-to-government donations in the event of emergency or dire need. The initial emphasis was upon shipment of surplus supplies to “friendly nations,” and less on humanitarian issues. The Food for Peace program, originally enacted as a short term solution to the surplus problem, wound up being a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy.

During the 1960s, the United States increasingly used food aid as a diplomatic tool. Under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, donation of food supplies and commodities was a means of inducing countries to modernize their agricultural systems. Such aid was conceived of as a self-help mechanism, with an eye on the longer-term goal of economic growth and self-sufficiency. The Indian famine of 1965-1966 is one example in which food aid was contingent upon India’s acceptance of Western-style agricultural practices and support for U.S. foreign policy objectives. Title I food aid became ever-more contingent upon a recipient’s behavior. In 1966, Food for Peace shifted from surplus disposal to the purchase of commodities in the commercial market for donation under Title II of the Food for Peace Act. Farmers no longer handed over their surpluses, they actively competed to provide the highest quality products to feed the hungry overseas.

The thirty years of global post-war recovery brought prosperity and agricultural surpluses. However, the poor harvest of 1972 left grains in short supply. Food prices soared, and the following year food became a critical international concern. In 1973, there were various attempts to meet this crisis through multinational organizations, including the United Nations, the European Community, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the nonaligned countries. At the same time, the Ford Administration enacted new legislation that increasingly intertwined food aid with human rights issues.

While humanitarian concern had long influenced U.S. food policy, it became a central focal point of diplomacy and foreign aid under President Jimmy Carter. The Governor of Georgia campaigned on a platform that stressed food assistance as part of a broader humanitarian and economic need rather than for political purposes. Once in office, human rights became a centerpiece for U.S. foreign policy, and with it, food assistance. Humanitarian assistance, and later, development food assistance programming, became the focus of U.S. international food aid.

Subsequent administrations continued this emphasis. The Food Security Act of 1985 authorized the donation of USDA commodities by the Secretary of Agriculture in order to provide food aid to countries in need. Such legislation enabled the U.S. Government to more fully respond to the famine in Ethiopia that year. In response to this famine, USAID established the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), designed to provide analysis of acute food insecurity.

The G.H.W. Bush Administration emphasized the enhancement of food security throughout the developing world. During the 1990s, U.S. Government programs sought to develop food systems in order to reduce child malnutrition and increase agricultural productivity. While the mechanisms have changed over time, food aid continues to be an important component of U.S. foreign policy today.

In the 2000s, The G.W. Bush Administration pushed for 25 percent of Food for Peace resources to go towards local and regional purchase (LRP) in the 2008 Farm bill. The Administration failed to achieve this goal, but it laid the groundwork, along with work being done by USDA on LRP, for Congress to eventually provide USAID - starting in 2010 - International Disaster Assistance funds. These funds are now used to purchase food locally or regionally, or use cash transfers or food vouchers in emergency food responses. These tools have been critical to the United States’ ability to respond to crises with the right tool at the right time.

The modernization of USAID’s food assistance activities continued through the Agricultural Act of 2014, offering new flexibilities that allows USAID to use a limited amount of funds to enhance in-kind food assistance with activities that target the underlying causes of food insecurity and malnutrition or help disaster victims access food in local markets.

Be it through relief or development, USAID’s food assistance programs are evolving based on years of experience, evidence-based learning, and a willingness to innovate to assure hunger needs and United States interests are met in some of the world’s toughest places. In 2014, USAID supported an innovative voucher program for Syrian refugees, the procurement of prepackaged food parcels for people in need inside Syria, and provided in-kind food commodities to avert famine in South Sudan while supporting development gains in 14 countries. As part of USAID’s mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies, Food for Peace is committed to finding ways to work smarter and better to more effectively combat hunger around the globe.