USAID head says food aid changes are urgent


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of the Obama administration's international food aid efforts says a proposal to shift the way food is delivered abroad could help an additional 4 million starving people. But there doesn't appear to be much support for the idea on Capitol Hill.

Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said Tuesday that the current system of shipping U.S.-grown food abroad has been inefficient and that changes are necessary as a humanitarian crisis in Syria and recent droughts in Africa sap food aid from other countries in need.

The United States now donates much of its food aid by shipping homegrown food overseas, but many aid groups have long argued that providing those countries with cash would be quicker, less expensive and more beneficial to local farmers. The Obama administration last week proposed shifting the food aid to cash accounts, saying such a move would be more efficient.

"We are stretched to our absolute limits precisely at a time when we don't expect to receive any supplemental funding," Shah said in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday. "If we don't do this, the consequences will be very severe in a very human, very real way."

Shah said that buying food locally is often the only practical option in war-torn countries where trucking in large amounts of food is not safe. Only a small portion of the U.S. food aid budget is now designated for cash purchases, and most of that money right now is going to aid people in Syria -- diverting funds from other needy people in unstable countries.

Congress would have to approve such a shift in resources, and the Obama administration is hoping that shifting the money to cash accounts will resonate not only with those lawmakers with an interest in food aid but also those looking to cut overspending or those with a faith-based concern for starving people overseas.

But many lawmakers are skeptical. The agricultural and shipping industries have long profited from the current program, dubbed "Food for Peace" when it was founded during the Cold War to deal with U.S. farm surpluses and boost the nation's image abroad. Their allies in Congress have backed them up, with a bipartisan group of 21 senators writing the Obama administration in opposition to the idea even before it was proposed.

Both the lead Republican and the lead Democrat on the House spending committee that oversees the Food for Peace program indicated at a hearing with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday that they are reluctant to support the shift.

Chairman Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., asked Vilsack why he would support a change that could hurt farm jobs. And Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., worried that shifting the oversight of the money to a different account could threaten its viability since the farm-state lawmakers have always protected it.

"I am not endorsing this until there are assurances that it won't be raided ... it's just the politics, I don't think it will happen this year," Farr said.

Vilsack said that under the proposal 55 percent of the food sold would still come from American producers and shifting the aid to cash could get food to starving people as many as 14 weeks quicker.

"This is about getting more assistance to more people more quickly with fewer dollars," Vilsack told the panel.

USAID's Shah said the administration can also use American companies to purchase some ready-to-eat foods for those in crisis -- foods like a peanut paste made in Georgia that could feed people more quickly and more nutritiously than some of the bulk grains and other agricultural commodities that are shipped now.

"By doing a few things differently, America doesn't have to give away its leading humanitarian role," Shah said.

While many food aid groups are also lobbying for the changes, others are against it. Some of those groups raise money for their organizations by selling the U.S. food received abroad and say any changes need to be well thought out.

Ellen Levinson, director of the Alliance for Global Food Security, a coalition of groups opposed to the administration's plan, says some countries often don't have enough food available for purchase locally. Fighting for the cash accounts to be renewed in full could become "a year-by-year process, eliminating the surety and oversight provided by the Food for Peace Act," Levinson said.

Farm groups have also stood strong in opposition.

"The agriculture community has always been, and continues to be, the leading proponent of food aid to protect the hungry in times of crisis," said Chandler Goule, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union.

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