One Billion School Kids, a New Market For US Farmers
July 18, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
BRIDGE NEWS July 14, 2000
CHURCHVILLE, Va. - The Clinton administration has backed some bad ideas, including Hillary Clinton's attempted health-care takeover and giving the federal government hypothetical authority to inspect your home office for safety hazards.
For a bad idea on a global scale, however, it's hard to beat Clinton's latest legacy-building proposal - a global school lunch program. It would be run by the United Nations, with the United States contribution mainly in the form of surplus farm commodities.
The idea itself came from former Sen. George McGovern, who originated the old Food for Peace program and is currently America's ambassador to the United Nations' food agencies in Rome. McGovern wants the United States to guarantee a nutritious school lunch for every school kid in the world.
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman is enthusiastic. "The president gave us the green light to go out and develop this program," He says. "It was clear the president and his staff were very impressed with the idea."
But the folks who must really love the global school lunch idea are at the United Nations itself. Imagine a U.S.-backed program to put a United Nations presence in every school in the Third World! Imagine handing out school lunches daily to 1 billion kids.
It must make U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan giddy to think of the political capital he could build with such a handout program, especially compared to putting U.N.-sponsored troops into some heavily armed hellhole like Somalia.
America's school lunch programs have been an excellent way to enhance childrens' nutrition. The costs have been rational. But it's a U.S. program, run mostly at the local level, with most of the costs paid by the parents.
When The Washington Times interviewed McGovern about the program, he said, "I estimate this program will cost a total of $ 3 billion for the first two years." He pooh-poohed the idea of big costs. "School lunches in developing countries cost 12 to 15 cents per meal, while U.S. school lunches cost a little over $1.20."
McGovern's $ 1.5 billion a year might cover local commodity costs. But the administration sees the lunch issue as a way to unload some of what McGovern would call our farm surplus. It might easily cost 10 times the value of the U.S. commodities to ship them to hungry kids in upcountry Nigeria.
First list the cost of shipping the commodities to Lagos, Nigeria, and hand-bagging them at dockside. Then add the cost of trucking them hundreds of kilometers over potholed dirt roads and rivers without bridges to reach northern cities like Kaduna or Kano.
When America tried to get food aid to starving Ethiopians during their drought in the early 1980s, we had to provide the commodities, the trucks to carry the food inland, the fuel for said trucks and the cost of the ships to carry the food, trucks and fuel.
McGovern also noted the United States has to pay one-fourth of the total cost. So if we take on school lunches for 1 billion kids and the global cost is $ 6 billion (or $ 60 billion) Uncle Sam pays one-fourth of the bill.
Moreover, when America sponsored school lunch programs for Japan after WWII, we introduced bread, milk and even meat to improve the kids' nutrition.
How long would the United Nations resist the temptation to increase its impact and political importance by doing likewise? What affluent democracy could take the political heat for denying such important nutritional benefits to little kids once the program became a recognized entitlement?
A few things are certain here. First, little kids in northern Nigeria and everywhere else should go to school. Second, they should have good nutrition. Third, school lunches have helped to provide good nutrition for poor kids in affluent countries.
But the only cost-effective way to provide good nutrition in remote poverty-stricken places is by using local sources. Any foreign money and commodities flowing to the kind of kleptocratic governments that rule such states will mostly be stolen, no matter who administers it. That's why the billions in foreign aid we've already handed to African leaders haven't helped much.
The farming community always loved Food for Peace because it seemed like a limitless and supposedly constructive way to dispose of the surpluses generated by America's high farm price supports. Glickman probably loves the idea because it would give him something tangible to wave in front of farm audiences as he campaigns for Vice President Al Gore.
But farmers would find a global school lunch program shipping a few thousand tons of costly U.S. commodities to some school kids a poor substitute for free trade, which would boost world farm market prices and double world farm exports.
For years, McGovern was a senator from South Dakota, voting for farm subsidies and against free farm trade. He didn't save many family farms that way either.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.