US Senate takes a bite out of White House food aid reforms

The Obama administration has an ambitious plan to reform the delivery of international food aid. It's ambitious not in concept. Everybody else does food aid this way: Buying food overseas in or near the emergency in order to speed up response times, support local economies and save money. No, it's widely regarded as very sensible. The reason it's ambitious is because Congress doesn't want to do it.

The Obama administration has an ambitious plan to reform the delivery of international food aid.

It’s ambitious not in concept. Everybody else does food aid this way: Buying food overseas in or near the emergency in order to speed up response times, support local economies and save money. No, it’s widely regarded as very sensible. The reason it’s ambitious is because Congress doesn’t want to do it.

In the latest move of political inertia, the US Senate on Monday voted to spend a tiny bit more on local food procurement, about $20 million. This amendment to the Farm Bill passed by the Senate represents a paltry sum in comparison to what the White House proposed.

Of the $1.8 billion budgeted for food aid spending, $60 million would be used for local purchases in the Senate budget. The amendment that passed with a voice vote increased the allocation from $40 million. A sum that pales in comparison to what the White House budget requested. The White House overhaul would put $1.4 billion towards emergency food aid, with only 55% sourced through the US. That means hundreds of millions of dollars could have been used to distribute food vouchers and purchase food in non-US markets.

“We are glad to celebrate any improvement, however modest, that can bring our food aid programs into the 21st century. However, this modest improvement should not be used an excuse to put aside bigger changes that are desperately needed,” said Eric Munoz, senior policy advisor for Oxfam America, in reaction to the news to the AP.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs advanced a bill that more closely reflected the White House plan, last month. The elimination of buying food domestically and shipping it overseas would save an estimated $30 million a year. Supporters of food aid reform applauded the bill and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) called it commonsense reforms.

“American tax payers should have confidence that their government is doing its absolute best to make sure funds aren’t wasted as we seek to lend a helping hand to those who would otherwise face severe consequences due to food insecurity.  These are bipartisan reforms and it is my hope Congress will move quickly in getting this legislation to President Obama’s desk,” said Rep Bass.

Opponents in the agriculture, shipping and nonprofit sector oppose the reforms on the grounds of damaging existing systems and US farmer’s food sales. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs refuted the point saying that food aid represents only 0.86% of total US agricultural exports.

The Alliance of Global Food Security (AGFS), a group with members including World Vision, Food for the Hungry and Planet Aid, says the White House reforms will damage the ability of the US to provide emergency food aid.

“Once funds are shifted from Food for Peace to disaster assistance and development aid, it is not possible to ensure that in the future they will continue to be used for food aid and technical assistance to help people overcome chronic hunger, the purpose stated in the President’s budget proposal. Instead, it becomes a year-by-year process, eliminating the surety and oversight provided by the Food for Peace Act, which has statutory objectives, publicly-vetted guidelines, procedures and regulations, and a track record,” argued AGFS Executive Director Ellen Levinson.

USAID Administrator Raj Shah appeared before the House appropriations and Senate foreign relations committees in late April to defend the White House plan. He couched the overhaul in terms of budget savings and maximizing the impact of every dollar. It appears his argument did not sway the Democrat-led Senate to engage with the ambitious reform plans.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.