Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Food aid that works


OUR OPINION: Loosening U.S. shipping and growing requirements would deliver more food to hungry people in nations in crisis

Thanks to U.S. food aid, 3 billion people in 150 countries have been spared hunger and their lives saved since the program began in 1954. It’s been one of the most successful foreign-policy programs to build good will across the globe.

Now Congress is considering a new way to deliver the food that would translate into more people getting fed at no extra cost to American taxpayers. More food for the buck is a win-win — except for entrenched special interests that prefer the inefficient and expensive status quo.

This week the U.S. House is taking up the farm bill, and there’s a bipartisan effort afoot to end the inefficient system that has been produced over the decades thanks to lobbying by Big Agribusiness in farm states. President Obama has proposed that almost half (45 percent) of the $1.5 billion requested in the 2014 federal budget for food aid could be spent buying food from local farmers in the countries most in need, which would result in feeding as many as 4 million more starving people.

Indeed, with sequester rules hitting all federal agencies, loosening the current rigid rules could result in spending less U.S. taxpayers’ money to feed more people.

As the law stands, all food shipped through the Food for Peace program and USAID must be produced in the United States, and at least half of all shipments must be made by U.S.-flagged vessels. That’s surely a protectionist policy from the last century. It doesn’t work anymore.

In fact, the United States is the only industrialized donor nation that refuses to buy food in bulk from local farmers in crisis areas. So, instead, food is shipped from the states to places in dire need such as Haiti, and some humanitarian groups in turn sell the donated food in foreign markets or to developing nations to raise money for their specific needs.

That “monetization” of U.S. food aid is legal, but it’s surely a loser both for the humanitarian groups looking to fill their people’s development needs and the U.S. taxpayers. A GAO report found that 25 cents of every food dollar is lost when monetization is used. About $30 million could be saved — and 800,000 more people fed if this practice ended.

Food shipped from the United States to Africa, the Middle East and other struggling areas can take up to 14 weeks — and gobble up as much as 16 percent of the food-aid budget — to get it to those who need to eat. And local farmers in those struggling countries must compete with U.S. commodities — in effect, taking away any incentive for locals to grow food.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., are pressing for reforms in the farm bill, which would set funding over five years. A Royce amendment that will be offered would allow USAID to use up to 45 percent of its food-aid money to purchase food abroad, closer to where the need resides or allow vouchers or debit cards to get to those in need to buy the food where they live. The effort is expected to deliver $215 million in savings. And the Royce amendment, cosponsored by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., also would apply about $150 million to deficit reduction.

The ag lobby and shippers will hem and haw that they will lose out. Actually, they still would be getting U.S. government subsidies to ship food grown here.

Those subsidies are the real culprit for the cumbersome food-aid program we have now.

Loosening the rules would deliver more food, more quickly to those most in need at less cost to U.S. taxpayers.

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