CAMBRIA, WISCONSIN — The Food for Peace program costs about $1.5 billion annually and provides U.S.-grown food to countries in need. But President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget includes changes to the 59-year-old program - replacing some commodity shipments with direct cash purchases in foreign countries. While some aid agencies welcome the proposed changes, farmers and millers in the midwestern United States say the changes will hurt their business and cost U.S. jobs.
Plano, Illinois, farmer Bill Wykes has been behind the wheel of a tractor for almost four decades, planting and harvesting corn and soybeans on land his family has owned even longer.
Throughout his entire career, he’s known that even though it’s a small amount, part of what he grows will help those who need it most.
“We’re glad to see it go and be used and help millions of people over the years to prevent malnutrition, starvation and things like that,” Wykes said.
Since the 1950s, commodities produced in the fertile farmlands of the United States have traveled across the globe to feed more than 3 billion people in 150 countries under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food for Peace program.
It’s been a source of pride for farmers like Wykes, who are strongly opposed to the Obama administration’s plan to send cash to countries in need instead of commodities.
“It’s a ridiculous, ridiculous idea. These things can only be done in certain areas and the United States has the best quality, and why not give them the best quality instead of trying to provide them with cash to go to a market that doesn’t have the quality or the commodity that is really needed,” Wykes said.
But U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak said changes to the program are necessary because it takes too long to get U.S. food aid where it’s urgently needed.
“The way we currently do business can basically add 11 to 14 weeks of delay in terms of getting food where it's needed most in an emergency circumstance, and the reality is that is far too long. This is about saving time and saving lives,” Vilsak said.
But for Dow Didion, who runs Didion Milling in Cambria, Wisconsin, saving time could mean eliminating some of his 212 employees.
“We have a large number of people in this portion of the business from processing to packaging to quality assurance to logistics, so it would impact us in the jobs area,” Didion said.
Didion’s mill processes and packages hundreds of thousands of bags of U.S. food aid each month. Each bag with a U.S. flag is bound for foreign ports. Didion says that sends a stronger message than money.
“I don’t feel that cash will have the same impact that a bag that says “gift of the United States” will have. We are concerned about feeding the starving people a quality product, and have concerns if the program turns into a cash program, what will that money be used for,” Didion said.
Farm Bill legislation making its way through both houses of Congress significantly scales back President Obama’s plan to overhaul the Food for Peace program.