WASHINGTON, April 10, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday announced at a Council on Foreign Relations event that the department would provide $183 million in U.S. agricultural commodities to feed hungry children abroad through the McGovern-Dole program.
It’s not exactly news – the funds for the projects were appropriated in the 2014 budget – but the announcement was well timed. As Congress goes through the process of adopting a budget for the next fiscal year, it appears that food aid is once again on the table.
“The McGovern-Dole program doesn't just feed hungry children, it invests in their future potential," Vilsack said at the event in New York. “Supporting healthy families and improving access to education helps to combat the root causes of poverty and fosters sustainable economic growth in developing nations.”
According to the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the disbursed funds will benefit over 2.5 million young people in 10 developing countries. Supported projects include Kansas State University efforts in Tanzania, World Food Program work in Laos, Nepal and Bangladesh, and Catholic Relief Services programs in Benin and Burkina Faso.
For 2015, the administration proposes to fund the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program (IFEP) at $185 million for 2015. According to government officials, the funding level would assist more than 4 million women and children. The program, first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill, allows the country to send U.S. commodities and financial and technical assistance to school feeding programs in foreign countries.
But while feeding hungry people sounds like it would stir little political controversy, the Obama administration’s 2015 food aid budget proposals have rankled some in the agriculture community, including a number of lawmakers.
At issue is not the McGovern-Dole program, but the so-called Food for Peace international food assistance program. The administration has asked for a new authority to use up to 25 percent of the proposed $350 million program appropriation to buy agricultural commodities in the country or region where they will be donated – meaning some communities will no longer receive their aid in the form of U.S.-produced foods.
USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – the agencies responsible for administering food aid programs – would use cash vouchers to purchase local food to feed hungry people who face emergencies like natural disasters.
But many feel the reform would threaten U.S. agriculture and shipping interests, who favor shipping commodities over cash. Other critics say local procurement schemes are inefficient and prone to corruption and abuse.
The issue was at least partially settled by the farm bill, which funded the local procurement of agricultural goods with $80 million. The program, previously a pilot, will now be permanent, though it falls short of the Obama’s administration original request to shift a full 45 percent of the country’s $1.5 billion food aid budget to the new disbursement plan.
“Why did the budget propose this change when we litigated this issue in the farm bill debate?” Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., asked USDA officials at a budget hearing Tuesday. Yoder used the hearing to make the case for commodity-based food aid. The president’s budget would allow 25 percent – $282 million – in cash assistance instead of U.S.-produced commodities, he said. “That’s $282 million in cash assistance rather than $282 million in Kansas farmers producing crops.”
Michael Scuse, the USDA official who oversees FSA operations, defended his administration’s proposal. “What we believe is that this will allow us to provide assistance much faster,” he said.
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