WASHINGTON, March 17, 2016 - A House Appropriations subcommittee hearing turned into a sparring match Thursday over the Obama administration’s proposal to cut spending on foreign food aid and transition some of the physical food donations into cash assistance.

“I and others in Congress are concerned that moving the American farmer and shipper from the participation in this tradition of the Food for Peace program does not create intended efficiencies, but will instead lead to cuts in the program due to lack of support,” Robert Aderholt, chairman of the agriculture subcommittee, said about the proposal to cut $116 million from the program in USDA’s fiscal year 2017 budget plan.

Previous moves to replace shipments of U.S. commodities with cash aid and local food purchases near foreign crisis areas have cut physical donations and shipping activity for the program by 20 percent, Aderholt said.

“Without the support and the participation of the American farmer and shipper, it’s hard for many of us to go back to our constituencies and justify spending more money on foreign aid programs at a time when our nation’s deficit is out of control,” the Alabama Republican said.

But California Democrat Sam Farr argued that it was essential that more food aid be provided with cash or local purchases because the assistance arrives much quicker in times of dire need.

“When you think about how we have to grow that food, harvest that food, transport that food, then get it on an overseas carrier, get it overseas, get it off those ships, distribute it to a center and distribute it to the countries that need that food and then work it into the local markets, that’s the most expensive food in the world,” said Farr, who was attending his last scheduled appropriations subcommittee hearing before he retires from Congress.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Alexis Taylor, one of five witnesses testifying at the hearing, said past experience has shown that replacing shipments of U.S. commodities with cash and local purchases saves the government time and money.

Congress created a pilot program in the 2008 farm bill to allow the USDA to try out in-kind food aid, such as “local and regional food aid procurement projects,” and then lawmakers gave the department permanent authority in the 2014 farm bill to provide some aid that way.

USDA’s budget proposal seeks to “use of up to 25 percent of the appropriation, valued at $337.5 million, for market-based food assistance for emergencies including interventions such as local or regional procurement of food near emergencies, food vouchers or cash transfers.”

“We did find efficiencies in getting food to (foreign countries),” said Taylor, stressing that it was “quicker and more affordable” to provide the aid.

USDA, in its budget proposal, says that it and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) can help feed an extra 2 million people while spending less money when in-kind food assistance is employed.

On a separate subject, 57 agricultural groups sent a letter Wednesday to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, asking members not to cut crop insurance as they put together the fiscal 2017 spending bill. Similar letters were sent last week to the Budget Committees.

“Farmers and lawmakers agree that crop insurance is a linchpin of the farm safety net and is crucial to the economic security of rural America,” the farm groups wrote in the latest letter. “As the Appropriations Committees develop their spending proposals for the year, we respectfully urge you to protect crop insurance and in doing so, the financial stability of much of rural America.”

But lawmakers may have to make spending cuts and crop insurance is one possible target.    

The House Budget Committee on Tuesday released its FY 2017 Budget Resolution and called on 12 authorizing committees, including the Agriculture Committee, to each find $1 billion in savings over a 10-year period under a reconciliation provision. The budget plan also proposes an additional $30 billion in cuts outside the reconciliation process.