WASHINGTON, March 19, 2015 – The Obama administration is negotiating with the shipping industry to allow more U.S. food aid to be purchased overseas rather than from American producers.

The administration has been trying for years to overhaul the Food for Peace program in a way that officials say would accelerate the delivery of food assistance and feed more people at the same time.

However, a key lawmaker told Agri-Pulse today that he may try to use the Agriculture Department’s fiscal 2016 spending bill to block any agreement that results from the negotiations.

“We feel very strongly about it,” said Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. By relying on U.S. commodities, the existing program is “a win-win, a win for the American farmer, shippers, and it’s a win for the folks overseas,” he said.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the shipping industry would drop its attempts to increase the amount of food aid that must be transported on U.S.-flagged carriers - a requirement known as “cargo preference" - and would no longer lobby against allowing up to 45 percent of food aid to be purchased overseas, closer to where it is to be distributed. In return, the U.S. Agency for International Development would make an annual payment of more than $90 million to the shippers. USAID and USDA jointly administer food aid programs.

The shipping industry has been lobbying to increase the cargo preference for food aid from the current 50 percent to 75 percent. The House approved the increase in the last Congress but the Senate refused to go along.

The administration, meanwhile, has proposed this year to allow 25 percent of Food for Peace emergency funding, or $350 million, to be used for overseas purchasing, known as “local and regional procurement” (LRP) in fiscal 2016. The LRP allowance would allow an additional 2 million people to be fed, according to USDA.

Critics of the existing system say that requiring the use of U.S. commodities inflates aid costs and hurts farmers in poor countries by blocking from selling their food for aid. The European Union has long shifted from providing cash for food aid rather than commodities.

“Just buying food in Iowa and sending it to Africa is not the way to work people out of poverty,” California Rep. Sam Farr, the ranking Democrat on Aderholt’s subcommittee, said at a hearing this morning.

But Aderholt challenged USDA officials on the negotiations and unsuccessfully pressed them to discuss details of the planned deal “The proposed changes are slowly removing the American farmer from a rich, 60-year tradition and surrendering the USDA’s role in this crucial program,” Aderholt said.

Another GOP member, Andy Harris, R-Md., also slammed the administration’s effort to shift Food for Peace purchasing.

“The Department of Agriculture is not a welfare agency, it’s not a foreign welfare agency,” Harris said. “It’s here to help American farmers. That doesn’t help American farmers.”

Michael Scuse, USDA’s under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said the agreement was “still in the works.”

“Let me point out that there is still is a very large percentage of U.S. product that will be purchased here from our American farmers and ranchers and shipped,” Scuse said. “It’s not like we’re asking for 100 percent of all food to be done through local and regional procurement.”

The administration also is asking Congress to use $20 million for LRP purchases that serve feeding programs in poor countries, including through the McGovern-Dole international school-nutrition program. The 2014 farm bill authorized up to $80 million a year in such purchases, but none of the money was appropriated for fiscal 2015.

Farr questioned why USDA had not requested more than $20 million. "If we’re going to have a foreign food-aid program, then the intent there is to work people out of poverty," Farr said. "It’s not going to happen just by satisfying the needs of (U.S.) farmers who grow commodity crops."