WASHINGTON — An Obama administration plan to change the way the United States distributes its international food aid has touched off an intense lobbying campaign by a coalition of shipping companies, agribusiness and charitable groups that say the change will harm the economy and hamper efforts to fight global hunger.
Proponents say it would enable the United States to feed about 17 million more people each year, while helping to fight poverty by buying the crops of farmers in poor countries.
According to people briefed on the soon-to-be released fiscal 2014 budget, the administration is expected to propose ending the nearly 60-year practice of buying food from U.S. farmers, then shipping it abroad. The administration proposes the government buy food in developing countries instead of shipping food from U.S. farmers overseas, a process that typically takes months. The proposed change is expected to save millions in shipping costs and get food more quickly to areas that need it.
The administration is also reportedly considering ending the practice of food-aid “monetization,” a process by which the government gives U.S.-grown grains to international charities. The groups then sell the products on the market in poor countries and use the money to finance their anti-poverty programs.
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Critics say the practice hurts local farmers by competing with sales of their crops.
The United States spends about $1.4 billion a year on international food aid and is the only major donor country that continues to send food to humanitarian crisis spots rather than buying food produced locally.
In a letter to members of Congress and the Obama administration, more than 60 organizations, such as the USA Rice Federation and the American Maritime Congress, defended the way the program is run and called on lawmakers and the Obama administration to resist changing it.
“Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping and transportation of nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine … and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs,” the groups wrote.
Twenty-one senators from farm states also wrote to the Obama administration last month, asking that the program be kept as is.
David Evans, the U.S. president of the Phoenix-based charity Food for the Hungry, one of several charities that signed the letter opposing changes to the program, worries Congress may cut the food-aid budget altogether if federal dollars are used to buy food abroad. “If the money is not supporting the purchasing of U.S. commodities, then it will lose support in Congress,” he said.
Other charities, such as Oxfam and CARE, support the proposed change. The groups say a large percentage of food aid is spent on shipping costs, and as the costs have risen, the amount of food the United States has shipped has fallen.
The groups say they are especially glad to see the Obama administration end the practice of giving charities food to sell in local markets to help finance their anti-poverty and development programs.
A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, concluded the system was “inherently inefficient.” The GAO found that nearly $300 million was lost because of inefficiencies.