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US Congress Mulls More Flexible Food Aid Reforms

A U.S Navy aircrewman prepares to drop supplies from a MH-60S Seahawk, assigned to the USS George Washington at Tacloban Air Base in support of Operation Damayan, Nov. 14, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo/Ricardo R. Guzman)
As typhoon relief efforts ramp up in the Philippines, critics say the United States needs more flexibility in how it delivers food aid. The crisis hits as Congress is rewriting the law governing food aid and much more.

The United States is the world’s leading disaster-relief donor. Most of the food aid budget goes to a 60-year-old, $1.4 billion program called Food for Peace that ships American-grown crops to affected areas on American-flagged ships.

“It’s wasteful and inefficient," said Dan Harsha.

Dan Harsha is spokesman for the Democratic staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He says if food is available closer to a crisis area, it generally costs less and arrives sooner than food shipped from the United States.

The U.S. Agency for International Development can use a limited amount of funding for local or regional purchase, or LRP. About three-quarters of the $10 million in food aid the U.S. is donating for typhoon relief is going to LRP. But Harsha says crises in Syria and the Horn of Africa are competing for USAID funds.

“And if they use all their LRP authority now, they may not be able to meet the humanitarian needs that we’re seeing - nearly four million displaced people in Syria," he said. "Not to mention unanticipated future emergencies. What if there’s a future typhoon in Asia, or an earthquake?”

Congress is considering changes that would allow up to 20 percent of the Food for Peace budget to be spent on LRP or other uses.

An Obama administration proposal to free up 45 percent of Food for Peace funds was narrowly defeated earlier this year. U.S. farmers, food processors and shippers were among the most vocal opponents.

Ellen Levinson heads the Alliance for Global Food Security, a coalition of humanitarian non-profit organizations. She says changes to Food for Peace are looking likely this time.

“The bigger problem is making sure we have adequate funding, quite frankly, for disaster assistance, including cash for local purchase," said Levinson.

Food aid funding is part of the Farm Bill, a five-year, half-trillion-dollar package of crop subsidies, nutrition programs and more. The fate of that bill hangs largely on partisan debates over domestic food aid programs.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.