Last Ditch Effort for Food Aid Reform

What's at stake: Between 4 million and 10 million more hungry people overseas could be fed -- for the same amount of money -- if proposed changes are enacted, according to experts at a leading anti-poverty think tank, Center for Global Development.
Food aid in Sudan
Food aid in Sudan
Flickr, UNEP

The widely supported, bipartisan attempt to modernize and improve the U.S. government’s food aid system is not yet dead.

What’s at stake: Between 4 million and 10 million more hungry people overseas could be fed — for the same amount of money — if proposed changes are enacted, according to experts at a leading anti-poverty think tank, Center for Global Development.

Proponents argue that the proposed reforms would reach more hungry people faster, save money and save more lives. And it will knock $150 million off the federal deficit. The changes to food aid, initially proposed by the Obama Administration, are backed by a wide range of supporters from the conservative Heritage Foundation to the liberal opinion page of the New York Times.

Where we’re at: An amendment sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) will allow USAID to spend as much as 45% of its emergency food aid budget for non-American food purchases. The amendment more closely reflects the White House plan than the small sum included in the Senate version of the Farm Bill. Relaxation to food procurement laws will make a big difference. Engel and Royce estimate that the amendment will save the federal government $215 million every year.

“One of the key problems with the current system is that it takes too long to deliver US-grown food aid – an average of 130 days,” said Engel on Tuesday. “By purchasing food in the recipient country or region, we can cut that time in half, and in the process, get food to starving people before it’s too late.”

A vote on Friday will determine if the United States will reform its emergency food aid program or maintain the status quo. What may seem like an open and shut case is far from it.

Not everyone is in agreement with the passage of the amendment. Despite broad support from both sides of the aisle, food aid reform has met some major stumbling blocks. None bigger than the unions.

The AFL/CIO and shipping unions are pushing back against the amendment. A letter from the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD) urged members of congress to oppose the Royce-Engel amendment. It argues that the Food for Peace Program is an important program around the world and for the US economy and national security. Making changes will harm the overall US shipping sector, put national security at risk and eliminate jobs, argues the TTD.

To seize nearly half of the Food for Peace Funds, as the Royce-Engel amendment proposes, and use them to provide cash transfers to organizations abroad, would be to gut the very things that make this program such a success. This amendment would undermine our nation’s maritime and agriculture industries and their workforces, our commercial and military sealift capabilities, and our ability to successfully deliver international aid around the globe.

The claims were refuted by a 2010 study led by Christopher Barrett of Cornell University. A Cold War era policy that required food aid to be sent via US-based ships was designed to boost national security if the Navy needed to call up citizen sailors. The study shows that the preference comes with a massive cost.

“The cost of maintaining this untapped pool of roughly 1,400 mariners on agricultural cargo preference vessels in fiscal year 2006 amounted to approximately $99,300 per mariner,” write the authors.

NGOs like World Vision that once opposed the White House plan for food aid reform are now supporting the amendment through the InterAction alliance.

“This amendment is a big step in the right direction in terms of modernizing our life-saving U.S. food assistance programs,” said Samuel A. Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress and the administration to ensure that we reach more people in need. With 870 million people facing chronic hunger worldwide, it is more important than ever to make the most of our limited resources.”

The NGO Mercy Corps is lobbying for the passage of the amendment with a Change.org petition. The nearly 10,000 signatories urged their members of congress to pass the amendment.

Please vote in support of the Royce-Engel amendment to the Farm Bill this week. While U.S. food aid saves millions of lives, it’s an imperfect system. Current law requires that our government ship the majority of our food from the U.S., which means that it can take months to reach vulnerable people who need it and often costs significantly more than buying food locally or regionally.

An OpEd from the Miami Herald yesterday is the latest example of support for the bill. They refute the claims by the shippers saying that they will benefit from offsetting subsidies and the savings from the amendment will increase impact and help the federal deficit.

“While the costs of food aid reform are few, the benefits would be substantial,” conclude Elliott and McKitterick. “Now is the time to bring food aid into the 21st century.”

Update: The amendment was voted down by a slim margin of 203 to 220.The issue split Republicans 105-126, and it split Democrats 98-94.

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About Author

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.