It is hard to imagine a time when food aid offers greater opportunities for improving America’s image in the world than now. Sadly, this is also the time when budgetary pressures are causing aid funding to shrink to the lowest levels in years, threatening damage to this image. Even without formal budgetary action slashing American food aid shipments, the volume of aid has been relatively unimportant to the domestic industry. That is especially the case for an industry like flour milling that at one time in the post-World War II period counted on food aid for significant business. The current outlook for aid is so dire that even dreaming about reviving this potential for an important American industry like milling is ill-advised. But the potential is there and it needs addressing.

The urgent need for maintaining and even expanding food aid stems from the way food shortages have caused political and social distress. This is so in the Horn of Africa, due to drought and banditry, in the Arab nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which have experienced toppling of dictatorial regimes, and in nations like Afghanistan and Iraq where normalcy has given way to military conflict. Millions of people in these lands do not have enough food. According to the United Nations, the total number of people in poverty in the Asia-Pacific region alone is 19 million, a figure that supposedly reflects the way that sharp gains in food prices cut back on food availability.

For the United States, its lead in providing food aid was a proud banner for most of the 20th century. It was the generosity and the strategy of the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, or P.L. 480, enacted at the urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that caused food aid to take off to the point that at one time it was a central force in flour demand. Food aid volumes have fluctuated sharply, reaching their nadir in the last two decades of the 20th century. In reaction to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, President George W. Bush expanded funding in the belief these efforts would counter anti-American attitudes in regions where plotting was encouraged by food insecurity. That much of this undertaking is about to be abandoned because of budgetary problems and the perception the public does not favor foreign aid is one of those seminal moments where the impact is so far-reaching, domestically and in foreign affairs, that any negatives for a single American industry are easily overlooked.

Even as U.S. aid has shrunk, with the Commodity Credit Corp. spending less than a billion dollars annually on food purchases for shipment abroad, the United States still is the leading supplier of food aid. While wheat continues to be the major product shipped, an increasing share of relief is higher-value, processed products. It was milling many years ago that took the lead in this initiative, helping to establish a role for bulgur and compound products like wheat-soy blend. Just as the program now faces a diminished budget, the focus has begun to shift to “Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods” (called RUTFs), with the first of these a fortified peanut paste to help “feed and treat” hungry children in the Horn of Africa.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in announcing the peanut product, noted that this program supports U.S. jobs while providing a highly nutritious food to starving people. He said, “Our efforts to support food security are critically important to a more stable world.” This is a hugely significant issue that needs making as food aid faces a severe budget axe. It’s no mistake that P.L. 480 is still known as Food for Peace. This program, one of the proudest and most successful of American achievements in the past century, needs to be counted as essential to peace for America and the world.