Aid groups seek flexible food assistance program in farm bill

By Stewart Doan

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2012- On the eve of the Senate Agriculture Committee launching a series of hearings to evaluate policy options for new multi-year farm legislation, aid and international development groups said they'll push Congress to at least reauthorize a $60 million program that allows for the purchase of food closer to the areas where it is needed and require U.S. food assistance shipments to be more nutritious.

Currently, the United States provides approximately 50% of food aid globally at an estimated annual cost to taxpayers of $2 billion, roughly 80% of which is delivered by a half-dozen programs contained in the Trade Title of the 2008 Farm Bill. They include P.L. 480, Food for Progress, McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, and the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust.

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“Current regulations on the food aid program in the Farm Bill protect special interests at the expense of the hungry, and [that means] that more than a quarter of every dollar the U.S. spends on food aid goes to waste,” an anti-hunger coalition led by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), Oxfam America and Bread for the World Institute, said in a statement. “With a reformed system that includes cash, vouchers, local procurement of food, and a serious commitment to strengthening local sustainable agriculture, the United States can effectively partner to save more lives and work toward eradicating global hunger.”

A series of four Senate Agriculture farm bill hearings kicks off Wednesday with an examination of energy and economic growth opportunities in rural America. Lamenting the perceived lack of interest in their issues, food aid stakeholders said they plan to ask Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, later this week to hold a hearing on the broader international implications of the farm policy rewrite.

At the urging of international development advocates and the Bush Administration, lawmakers inserted the Local and Regional Food Aid Procurement Projects, a cash food aid pilot program, into the 2008 Farm Bill. The program provides for grants or cooperative agreements to secure local or regional procurements of commodities to respond to foreign food crises and disasters.

Aid groups cited an analysis conducted by a Cornell University researcher that concluded the pilot project has facilitated quicker and more cost-effective delivery of food assistance.

“If you are buying corn regionally in a place like Africa, for example, we think it's about 61% cheaper on average when sourced in the region where it's needed,” said Paul O'Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America.

Recognizing that foreign aid in any form faces stiff headwinds on Capitol Hill, O'Brien said “We're not asking for the complete transference of all food aid into local and regional purchase. But if you don't have this pilot up and running and entrenched as part of the next farm bill, we may lose that flexibility.” 

The Obama administration is supportive of the more flexible approach, according to Timi Gerson, director of advocacy at AJWS.

Historically, Congress, at the request of farm and commodity organizations, along with agribusiness concerns, has mandated that virtually all taxpayer-funded food assistance consist of U.S.-grown commodities and be transported on American-flagged ships.

As poor countries develop their own strategies to deal with food insecurity, Washington needs to be “thinking more strategically about how it can be a good partner . . . and leverage its investments,” said Bread for the World's Asma Lateef. Making improvements in nutritional outcomes of the food aid program should be a key goal, he added.

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