WASHINGTON, June 7, 2017 – Republican and Democratic lawmakers stressed their support at a hearing today for two key food aid programs, taking a stance contrary to President Donald Trump’s budget proposal that seeks to eliminate or slash funding for the programs.

Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, urged the White House to consider strengthening programs that help feed people living in impoverished regions and victims of famine around the world instead of defunding the initiatives.

The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposes to eliminate the McGovern-Dole program, which uses donated U.S. farm commodities to fund efforts to combat malnutrition and starvation and promote education in impoverished regions. The budget plan would also shift all the funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace Program to the International Disaster Assistance Account – and then cut that funding by about 50 percent.

“Unfortunately, the budget put forward by the administration would completely eliminate two key U.S. assistance programs: Food for Peace Program and McGovern-Dole,” Peterson said. “I would urge the administration and members of Congress to consider today’s testimony and look to the work we did as part of the last farm bill to improve these programs when considering potential budget cuts.”

It was a sentiment expressed by several lawmakers today during the two-hour hearing.

Republican Reps. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana and Ted Yoho of Florida both told Agri-Pulse that they did not support eliminating the food aid programs, but also stressed that changes are needed.

“I don’t think you can zero it out. I think we need to reform it,” Yoho said on the sidelines of the hearing.

A popular concern of lawmakers was the increasing use of cash, vouchers and local or regional commodity purchases to provide aid instead of U.S.-grown farm commodities.

“As much as we can do to promote growth in the United States and support for these programs by producing, processing it and shipping it from the United States to handle emergency food aid, it is vitally important to keep support for these programs,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. “Or you’re going to see more and more public support for the kind of proposals that cut these programs.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway stressed that the use of U.S.-grown food and U.S.-based ships help build support for the food aid programs.

“The hearing is … particularly timely given the recent release of the administration’s budget proposal, which calls for drastic cuts to international food aid programs and the elimination of funding for both the McGovern-Dole and Food for Peace Programs,” Conaway said. “I know we will hear from several of you today about the shortsightedness of such a proposal. I tend to agree. Americans are big-hearted folks who love seeing the U.S. flag on a donated bag of rice.”

One witness at the hearing who argued vigorously in defense of U.S. food aid was Ron Suppes, a Kansas wheat farmer and past chairman of the U.S. Wheat Associates.

“These programs involve a significant amount of wheat, a fact not lost on farmers with full grain bins and more wheat piled on the ground from last year’s historically high harvest,” Suppes said. “It is a year when the U.S. needs to be a world leader in helping provide for those in need with these ample supplies.”

Brian Schoeneman, who testified on behalf of U.S. shippers and maritime unions, stressed that Congress needs to ensure that more of America’s food aid is not converted into cash assistance or foreign-sourced commodities. He said Congess should also consider increasing the number of U.S.-based ships used to haul the food aid.

When the U.S. government pays to ship anything overseas – including food aid – it is required by law to make sure that at least half of the cargo is sent on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Using U.S. ships can make transportation of the commodities roughly 10 percent more expensive to send overseas, but that’s what is needed to keep the U.S. shipping fleet strong, he said. The use of U.S. ships is also vital for maintaining political support for U.S. food aid.

“If you cut out the political constituency for these programs, they’re going to go away,” Schoeneman said. “The president’s budget is a perfect example of that. No other president has taken a shot at McGovern-Dole and (Food for Peace) like Trump did.”