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Food Aid debate grows

In the $3.8 trillion 2014 federal budget proposed by the Obama Administration Wednesday, a shift of more than $1 billion from one emergency food aid account to another might be just a footnote. 
Instead, it's a very big deal to farm groups and others who want the federal government to donate America commodities to victims of famine, war and earthquakes around the globe. It represents reform to groups like Bread for the World, Oxfam America and American Jewish World Service. The old system of shipping commodities, dating to the 1950s, is inefficient, wasteful and costing lives, they argue.
The Administration's top food aid reformer, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, made his case today at a Washington event that also included former Republican Senator Richard Lugar and former Clinton-era Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.
"The President’s 2014 budget includes reforms to food aid that will enable us to feed an estimated four million more hungry children every year with the same resources," Shah said in a speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Let me be clear: we are not ending food aid. In fact—we’re doing the opposite. The President’s proposal commits to a more rapid, cost-effective, and life-saving food aid program that pairs the continued purchase of American food aid with a diverse set of tools, including local procurement and food vouchers."
Shah is a physician who worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before joining the Obama Administration. With the foundation, he had several roles, including heading its agricultural development work.
The food aid change takes nearly $1.5 billion from the venerable Food for Peace Program that used commodities to feed the hungry. It puts $1.1 billion of that into an international disaster assistance program for emergency food aid, combining it with a $300 million cash-based program for emergency aid that the U.S. government has used to help refugees from Syria, for example.
But in 2014, this $1.4 billion reformed emergency aid program won't end all shipments of commodities.
"Moving to a flexible cash-based approach will not end the contribution of American agriculture to our critical mission. The President’s proposal includes a 55 percent floor for 2014 so the majority of our funds will be used for the purchase and transport of American commodities," Shah said.
"…we remain absolutely committed to our partners who have advanced Food for Peace’s life-saving mission for generations. We remain committed to our agricultural partners in the United States," he said.
Those agricultural partners have expected the changes and were worried enough to write the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee in March to "oppose shifting resources to overseas commodity procurement."   
"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," said the letter, signed by 84 groups, including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union.
Some aid groups also have misgivings.
Ellen Levinson, who lobbies for the Alliance for Global Food Security, points out that the USAID commitment to buy U.S. commodities would be phased out over three years. 
"USAID needs to buy US commodities because there is no way they can buy sufficient amounts locally or regionally where emergencies take place," she told in an email message. "Just saying they will procure US commodities is not adequate to make sure they have access to sufficient amounts of specialized, fortified foods and a cost-effective pipeline."
The Alliance for Global Food Security includes Land O'Lakes, Inc. and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and several other nonprofit and religious aid organizations.
Other aid groups held a press conference Wednesday to endorse the Administration's proposals.
"The U.S. policies, while very generous, are in need of reform," said Catherine Bertini, former Executive Director of the World Food Program. She was joined by leaders from Bread for the World, American Jewish World Service, CARE, and Oxfam America. 
Those four groups and eight others released a statement of support for the Obama Administration reforms.
"Experts unanimously agree that purchasing locally-produced food from farmers in or near a region facing an emergency is far more cost-effective and provides faster relief than the current approach, which requires the shipment of U.S. commodities halfway around the globe. This view was recently validated by a study of a four-year, $60 million USDA pilot program for local purchase of food aid that resulted in food aid reaching recipients more than two months faster than in-kind food aid and at a significantly lower cost for the majority of commodities. The President’s request would provide additional flexibility to determine the most efficient way of procuring food aid," the groups said.
The debate over food aid that ramped up on Wednesday is more about efficiency and effectiveness than saving money. In a background briefing at the State Department earlier this week, an Administration official told members of North American Agricultural Journalists that the shift in Food For Peace funds to the emergency aid fund and two other funds for international development and emergencies would save $500 million over ten years, or $50 million annually.
National Farmers Union saw the cuts as significant, however.
"The budget’s $500 million cut to the Food for Peace program is alarming," said the group's vice president of government relations, Chandler Goule, Wednesday. "The agriculture community has always been, and continues to be, the leading proponent of food aid to protect the hungry in times of crisis and advance the United States’ humanitarian efforts."
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