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U.S. food aid programs set for major changes?

White House budget expected to contain proposals to change to U.S. food aid programs. Proposals include moving from buying only U.S.-grown commodities to more regional and local purchases. U.S. agriculture and merchant groups displeased with proposed changes.

President Dwight Eisenhower began the first U.S. food aid program by buying up excess domestic commodities and sending them to countries in need on U.S. vessels. That approach, largely unchanged for the last 60 years, may be about to change.

Expected to release a budget request on April 10, the Obama administration will propose revising the U.S. food aid model – used in the Food for Peace and Food for Progress programs -- to allow for purchase of food aid on a local or regional basis. While details remain fuzzy, proponents say the shift would update an outdated system, save money and provide aid much quicker to hard-hit areas of the world. If allowed, the White House plan might also use cash and vouchers to distribute directly to needy people and allow them to make purchases from local markets.

The idea is to take the current budget line and move those funds over to different accounts – including the International Disaster Assistance Account and the Development Assistance Account -- under the control of USAID. Doing so would allow USAID to make choices depending on the situation.

Another expectation for the White House proposal is that the U.S. flag vessel requirement (where 50 to 75 percent of food aid has to be shipped on U.S. vessels) will be dropped. Proponents of the plan say the requirement has served as a long-time subsidy for the Merchant Marines.

The food aid changes are not being welcomed across the board. In late February, a coalition of agricultural and shipping advocacy groups sent a joint letter to the White House. Among those who signed the missive: the National Association of Wheat Growers, National Barley Growers Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Farmers Union, National Oilseed Processors Association, National Potato Council, National Sorghum Producers, U.S. Grains Council, U.S. Meat Export Federation, U.S. Rice Producers Association, U.S. Wheat Associates, USA Rice Federation and Winrock International.

“Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping, and transporting nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine, essential to our national defense sealift capability, and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in alternative foreign aid programs,” the letter reads.

It continues: “In addition to fighting global hunger and facilitating developmental programs to end the cycle of hunger, these programs are also some of our most effective, lowest-cost national security tools. Bags of U.S-grown food bearing the U.S. flag and stamped as ‘From the American People’ serve as ambassadors of our Nation’s goodwill, which can help to address the root causes of instability. In a time of growing global food insecurity and extremism, these programs need to be expanded, not eliminated.”

Read the full letter here.

In early April, Farm Press spoke with Eric Munoz, Oxfam America’s Senior Policy Advisor for Agriculture and Food Security, about the situation. Oxfam is well-known for its international efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty and largely backs the changes the Obama administration is proposing.

Munoz said the changes wouldn’t knock U.S. commodities out of contention for food aid. “This isn’t a whole-sale move away from U.S. commodities. There are many instances where the most efficient and effective decision is to buy right here in the United States and ship out.

“Of course, there are plenty of instances where that wouldn’t be the most efficient decision. We’re supportive of greater flexibilities in the U.S. food aid programs that will allow better decisions rather than have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Among other Munoz comments:

On Oxfam’s position…

“We’ve been supportive of efforts to create a more efficient system since at least the last farm bill. We’ve been looking at this for a number of years and working with the Senate Agriculture Committee and House Agriculture Committee during the process of writing a new farm bill in 2012.

“We were seeing some progress, particularly in the Senate where some reforms were made we thought were positive to make the system more accountable for delivering food aid.

“I think what the Obama administration is doing is a bold step forward. They’re moving beyond modest reform efforts and rethinking the current system from the ground up. That’s wise and something we support.”

Fraud and austere times

What about fraud – or outright thievery – by some of the governments of the people we’re helping? That’s been an issue for a long time. Will these reforms help curtail that?

“That’s a great question. There are always efforts with whatever kind of aid you’re delivering to ensure it makes into the people’s hands that need it most and it isn’t subject to corruption.

“I think there are checks in place with the current system to address that. Whatever reforms are made, we will continue to tackle that problem.

“I don’t think the current system is in any way superior to a cash-based system or one that relied more on local and regional procurement.”

When would this take effect if it goes through?

“This would be part of the budget process and would be for fiscal year 2014.

“The budget release will begin a period of consultation and debate about the direction of our food aid program. We look forward to that and believe it’s an important public debate to have. It will get some light and air in Congress so we can talk about the issues seriously.”

What about doing this while Congress is so concerned with cutting spending?

“It’s absolutely a concern. They’re looking at every line to make cuts and have been for several years.

“As Congress goes through that, one thing we’ve been trying to impress on members that the current system wastes tens of millions of dollars annually because of unnecessary overhead, because of excess shipping costs associated with the U.S. flag vessel requirement, and other special interest rules and regulations written into the law.

“You could take the current system, which spends roughly $1.4 billion on food aid, and with reforms make it a leaner, meaner system that reaches the same number, or more people, using less funding. So, if you’re looking to create smarter, more modern programs, food aid is one place where you could do a lot with simple reforms.”

What regions of the world is Oxfam watching closely? Are you gearing up to help any specific area that’s suffering?

“Last year, there was a fairly significant drought and collapse of markets in West Africa, in the Sahel region. That was an area we were very concerned about and we intervened with humanitarian assistance over several months. While harvest in that region – Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal -- has improved, it remains a precarious situation.” 

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