The History of Food Aid

The Food for Peace Program, also known as “Public Law (PL) 480,” was signed into law as the Agricultural Trade Development Act by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 10, 1954. The purpose of the legislation, Eisenhower said, was to “lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.” Early in his administration, President John F. Kennedy underlined the importance of PL 480 to the United States and the rest of the world by renaming it “Food for Peace” and placing it in the newly created U.S. Agency for International Development. “Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people around the world whose good will and friendship we want,” Kennedy said.

Food for Peace was established at a time when our nation had a surplus of government food stocks to send to countries that faced dire food shortages. Since 1954, there have been dramatic economic and political changes throughout the world and U.S. food aid programs have been modified to keep pace with those changes.  Food for Peace is no longer a program based on surplus food supplies; the U.S. Congress appropriate funding for the program each year as part of the regular federal budget process.

Moreover, methods of assessing needs and developing programs to deliver commodities to people in need have been refined.  Each program targets specific population groups that suffer from poor nutrition.  The underlying causes of hunger are analyzed and the program is designed around well-defined objectives that lead to positive results.  Examples of today’s Food for Peace programs include:

  • Food distribution to alleviate hunger in populations hit by natural disasters and other crises.
  • Provision of supplement foods to support people as they rebuild after a crisis.
  • Decreasing malnutrition in young children by providing nutritious foods and establishing mothers’ clubs where trained community leaders provide nutrition, health and sanitation training and assistance to community members.
  • Providing food as payment for community-organized work projects, such as building farm-to-market roads, water catchments, and terraced hillsides, improving management of natural resources and access to services and markets for rural communities.
  • Linking food aid to training and technical assistance, such as increasing agricultural production and incomes through farmer field schools and the establishment of cooperatives that provide economies of scale for access to inputs, training, finance and markets.

Therefore, the value of food assistance to recipients is much greater than the donated commodities alone. Since its inception in 1954, more than three billion people in 150 countries have benefited directly from U.S. food aid.

Indeed, many developing countries that were previously food aid recipients are now large agricultural exporters or can afford to buy commodities on the open market.  More countries are now able to contribute to meeting the world’s food needs and U.S. food aid levels have significantly decreased.

In addition to Food for Peace, the United States has two food aid programs that were established to address specific areas of need.  The Food for Progress Program, created in 1985, supports activities that improve agricultural production, processing and marketing in developing countries that are implementing economic reforms.  It has The George McGovern-Bob Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program, was established in 2002 to provide school meals and take-home food packages to impoverished school children. The distribution of food along with parent-teacher associations and improvements in the school environment has been proven effective in increasing school enrollment and attendance in poor countries.

U.S. food aid programs represent a coordinated effort of U.S. government agencies, agricultural producers and processors, the transportation network, ports, merchant mariners, and charitable and nongovernmental organizations to assure the smooth and continued available of products appropriate to meet the unique needs in each recipient country. To learn more about program development and implementation, click here.

Click here to read the Food for Peace 50th Anniversary Book