Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat”: the complicated history of American food aid

Joy Liu
Rochester, Minnesota


Harvest, Joy Liu. 2008 Private collection

Every afternoon after preschool, I would crisscross the maze of stolid Beijing apartments to collect a jar of fresh suan nai. Equal parts sweet, tangy, and savory, the fermented milk drink was a favorite I usually devoured as soon as the elderly peddler handed me a bottle and straw. One day, I came with a friend who forgot to bring his money. Usually a picky eater trailed by his anxious mother armed with food, he was uncharacteristically hungry and alone that day. I waited in line, dropped my coins into the peddler’s hands, collected the glass jar, and handed it to my friend. When I returned home empty-handed, my parents asked me what happened. It seemed so simple that I did not quite know what to say. He was hungry, so I gave him something to eat.

American food aid began with the same instinct. In 1794, the nation’s first refugee crisis arrived in the form of more than 25,000 French citizens escaping what was arguably “the largest and sole fully successful [slave revolt] there has ever been” in newly-established Haiti.1 After the burning of Port-au-Prince and the killing of over 1,000 slave owners, those who did not support the new order gathered what they could and left. They arrived in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Maryland, and South Carolina with little money, no lodgings, and nothing to eat.2

The 3,000 mostly women and children who landed in Maryland were described as destitute.3 Individual citizens, charitable groups, and the state government fed the newcomers from their own fields and pantries, responding out of sympathy, responsibility, and benevolence.

Things did not become complicated until three civic leaders from Baltimore arrived in what was then the capital, Philadelphia, to request a federal reimbursement of $10,000 for the cost of feeding the refugees. The debate that followed focused more on constitutional powers and foreign relations than on the actual act of giving food. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman James Madison argued against using taxpayer dollars to provide charity for foreigners. It was likely unconstitutional, a legal slippery slope, and he was concerned “to what extremities this practice might be carried.”4 After a month of review and debate, it was the emotional pull of sympathy and appeal to Christian charity that finally convinced the American government there was reason to feed those it did not consider its own. Even then, the approval came with the understanding that President Washington would in turn request reimbursement from the French government. Conveniently overlooked in this conversation was another sum of money given to the French in Haiti—the $726,000 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had extended to the French slave owners to oppose the rebellion.5

My own relationship with giving and receiving food did not become complicated until my family immigrated to the United States when I was in elementary school. My mother reprimanded me with one reminder before I was allowed to visit a friend’s house. Do not eat their food. Do not accept any food you are offered. Most times I was not tempted, but sometimes a parent would ask if I wanted anything to eat or drink. Even if I could see the rising steam of freshly-cooked dumplings, I would smile and shake my head, saying that I was not hungry.

My mother later explained that it was rude to take food from others who did not always have it easily and carelessly. We were all recent immigrants. She did not want another family to shoulder the burden of feeding another mouth. My friends’ parents seemed to have some understanding of this implicit code. I was praised by one for having so much resolve to refuse food at a young age, as if this act was a reflection of my character.

For America, food aid became more than just a reflection of its benevolence. It became a business, a political battle, and a foreign policy tool. The era of mass US food aid started during World War I with a request to help allies in Belgium being starved by the Germans.6 While Americans had sympathy for the cause, what ultimately swayed the government to provide substantial food aid were technological innovations that increased US farming productivity and facilitated transport of larger cargo loads. When the war ended and the Great Depression hit, farmers were left with surplus crops but no cash. President Roosevelt responded by guaranteeing government purchase of surplus crops, which resulted in huge, expensive food stores that the federal government did not know what to do with after World War II.7 The solution? Institutionalize food aid in legislation.

PL 480 was signed by President Eisenhower in 1954. Its moniker was Food for Peace, but even from the beginning, the legislation was designed with a few goals in mind. Key among these was the promotion of American agricultural stability and the use of agricultural surplus to advance foreign policy.8 A domestic bill, it answered to domestic interests—farmers wanted guaranteed payment for surplus crops, shipping companies wanted food transport exclusively on US vessels, NGOs wanted supplies and rights for local distribution9 All were constituencies of some district and legislator who would advocate on behalf of their interests. All except for the countries, communities, and people who would actually receive and eat this food.

This inconsistent and convoluted mission has landed the US in some unseemly situations. In the 1950s, the US found itself in the odd position of providing food aid to Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia in an attempt to draw the country away from communism.10 In the 1990s, the US (as a voice at the UN and NATO) used humanitarian aid to justify why it could not actively intervene in Srebrenica to prevent massacre.11 The US argued that NATO intervention to stop ethnic cleansing would jeopardize the continued delivery of food and medical supplies to the besieged enclave. When giving food is used as an excuse to allow mass killing, it has become a tangled, perverse mutation of its original intention.

The same inconsistency that dogged the American government’s thinking was also present in my mother’s. Even as she clearly linked good manners to my refusing food from others, she made exceptions that muddied the waters. My mother accepted the food I received in the form of a government-subsidized discounted lunch program. In the school lunchroom, the dollar I handed to the woman behind the register in exchange for a tray of milk and semi-warm cafeteria fare seemed like a fair exchange until a classmate who paid three dollars for the same meal pointed out that it was not. The question of fairness made me realize how little sense the lines she drew really made when it came to accepting or rejecting food from others.

American food aid tries to draw lines with federal policies instead of maternal injunctions, and the result is equally riddled with contradictions. What was supposed to be a win-win situation for both American farmers and hungry countries has grown into an approximately $8 billion industry annually, tugged in multiple directions by all the different interests it was supposed to serve.12

Maybe this kind of complexity is inherent to any endeavor of such magnitude, but history tells us that we still do best to forgo the legislative details and focus on the act of feeding the hungry. The last time a famine truly captured the American imagination was in 1984 when a combination of drought, population growth, political coup, and border conflicts landed Ethiopia in one of “the worst famines in modern history.”13 Even though Americans could have looked away, they chose to call for action instead. President Reagan responded with millions of dollars in food aid.14 Just like the Haitian crisis nearly two hundred years before, it later grew complicated, this time as academics questioned whether food aid had done anything to prevent the next drought and debated the merits of sending cash instead of food. But in the beginning, both had a simple message.

My mother’s message and reprimand followed me into my early twenties, so I surprised both of us when I accepted food or drink from a stranger for the first time on the streets of New Delhi. It was only my second time traveling abroad, and a combination of inexperience and naivety landed me at a tourist site with no food or water.

My thoughts increasingly turned to water as the temperature climbed and the air grew drier. At some point, my attention was no longer on the symmetrical wonder of Humayun’s Tomb before me but instead on my dry throat. I left the site to look for a nearby vendor or restaurant. In what must be a singular experience during my time in India, I found none. I stopped a man who looked like he worked at the site to ask about water. I pantomimed drinking from a bottle. He shook his head and walked away.

I heard a hello! behind me and turned to find a row of drivers perched on the back bumpers of their vans, waiting for their tour groups to return. The pantomime for water got passed down the line, a man eventually stood up, went to his van, and grabbed a bottle of water from the back. I expected haggling, but when I asked, he said it was free, dismissed my thanks with a wave, and disappeared by the time I had finished the bottle in two gulps. He made no pretense of policy and expected no compensation.

I was thirsty, so he gave me something to drink. It was the best water I’ve ever had.



  1. Foreman, Nicholas. “The History of the United States’ First Refugee Crisis.” Smithsonian.com. January 5, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-united-states-first-refugee-crisis-180957717/ (accessed August 10, 2018).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Riley, Barry. The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Foreman.
  6. Graber, Cynthia and Twilley, Nicola. “Feed the World: How the US Became the Biggest Food Aid Donor—And Why that Might Not Be Such a Good Thing”. GastroPod. Podcast audio, May 22, 2018. https://gastropod.com/feed-the-world-how-the-u-s-became-the-worlds-biggest-food-aid-donor-and-why-that-might-not-be-such-a-great-thing/.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Eisenhower, Dwight. “Statement by the President Upon Signing Bill Extending the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954.” The American Presidency Project. September 21, 1959. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=11519 (accessed August 20, 2018).
  9. Graber and Twilley.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Fink, Sheri. War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004.
  12. McBride, James. “How Does the US Spend Foreign Aid?” Council on Foreign Relations. April 11, 2017. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/how-does-us-spend-its-foreign-aid (accessed August 10, 2018).
  13. Graber and Twilley.
  14. Reagan, Ronald. “Statement Announcing an African Hunger Relief Initiative.” The American Presidency Project. January 3, 1985. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=38610 (accessed August 20, 2018).



JOY LIU, is a third year medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. She studied public policy and biology at Duke University. She is interested in global health, end-of-life care, foreign policy, and art.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 1– Winter 2019

Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Food

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