WASHINGTON, June 29, 2016 - Congress is poised to write into law controversial new ways of delivering food aid while also cementing the cornerstone of President Obama’s legacy in international development – the Feed the Future initiative.

The House is expected next week to give final congressional approval to the Global Food Security Act, which would formally authorize for the first time both Feed the Future and the Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP). The legislation sets requirements for the programs and assures that they live beyond the Obama administration.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, initially had misgivings about the Senate version of the bill, because it included the EFSP authorization that its Senate champions portray as a step toward food aid reforms but which Conaway has been fighting in the House. However, sources say he has signed off on passage of the legislation after getting assurances that the reforms won’t be extended to Food for Peace, long the flagship program for U.S. food aid, which mandates the use of U.S.-grown commodities.

The U.S. Agency for International Development launched EFSP in 2010 as a way to get food to distressed regions faster. EFSP, which the agency funds out of its international disaster assistance account, allowed USAID to start buying regionally produced commodities or to provide cash vouchers to people so they could buy food locally. It has been used heavily to feed refugees of the Syrian crisis.

With EFSP, USAID now has a parallel program to Food for Peace without the requirements in Food for Peace for use of U.S-grown commodities and U.S.-flagged ships. (Half of the aid must be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels.) The Obama administration has been pushing Congress for more flexibility in Food for Peace, arguing that more people could be fed at less cost if the requirement for U.S.-produced commodities were eased.

The Senate legislation authorizes spending $1.26 billion in 2017 and 2018 for the program, about what will be spent in fiscal 2016. By comparison, Congress appropriated $1.7 billion for Food for Peace for 2016. Much of the EFSP budget comes from Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, which is primarily used to pay for military operations. “EFSP has been amazingly valuable in the last few years” because USAID has received “flexibility, not within Food for Peace, but within this account to use more food vouchers,” said Ryan Quinn, senior policy analyst for Bread for the World.

The bill specifically authorizes the use of vouchers or commodities purchased outside the United States “to meet emergency food needs arising from manmade and natural disasters.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the EFSP authorization would be the “model for overall food aid reform.” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the provision “sends an important signal about the need to increase flexibility in how we deliver food aid.”

Eric Muñoz, a senior policy adviser with Oxfam America, said that the authorization of EFSP would “help build a more robust evidence base to document when U.S.-sourced commodities are appropriate and can be most cost-effectively used and when local and regional procurement or vouchers should be used to meet humanitarian need. That evidence should inform both authorizers and appropriators in making decisions about how best to meet food security goals.”

Conaway negotiated language in the bill that is intended to ensure that the legislation couldn’t be used to change the way Food for Peace is operated. 

Conaway also is certain to continue fighting major changes to Food for Peace, which benefits U.S. producers and shippers, when the next farm bill is written. He also will continue his committee’s scrutiny of the voucher program, which he and other critics warn could be abused. In letters to federal agencies last year, Conaway warned that “cash-based assistance is highly vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse,” citing a report by the Government Accountability Office that identified weaknesses in USAID’s financial oversight.

Charles Dujon, director of government relations for World Food Program USA, an advocacy group, said he expects EFSP to continue to be operated in tandem with Food for Peace rather than to serve as a step toward overhauling Food for Peace.

Feed the Future, which is designed to improve food production and nutrition in 19 target countries, was first developed during the George W. Bush administration and was formalized under President Obama but hasn’t secured statutory authorization from Congress to date. The initiative has been compared to Bush’s effective anti-AIDS plan, known as PEPFAR.

The Senate-passed bill would authorize Feed the Future through fiscal 2018 and require development of a government-wide “global food security strategy” to address food and nutrition needs in target countries and ensure that they become self-supporting. The bill also would set detailed requirements for USAID to report on the initiative’s progress. USAID also would be required to distinguish between how the program has affected female and male farmers. The House version of the bill authorized Feed the Future for just one year.

Feed the Future programs, which USAID coordinates with USDA and other agencies, have helped reduce child stunting as well as rural poverty, and farmers’ sales in the target countries have grown from $38 million in 2011 to $538 million in 2014, according to USAID.

“Having this legislation will help make sure that global food security stays a priority” for the U.S. government and ensures that the programs “are tracked and kept accountable,” said Jordan Teague, international policy analyst for food security and nutrition at Bread for the World.


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