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Food Aid debate grows

DANIEL LOOKER Updated: 04/10/2013 @ 7:25pm Business Editor

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.

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