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Despite Tug-of-War, USAID Gains Leeway on Food Aid

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Lucas said it appears the administration wanted to tap the USDA budget because it would not win congressional support for additional foreign aid money for disaster food aid.

The Obama administration gained some ground during this Congress in its bid to change the way the United States buys and delivers emergency food aid to hungry people around the globe.

However, groups that opposed the administration’s plan say they succeeded in stopping the White House from achieving sweeping changes.

The administration and its opponents have each declared victory, but the tug-of-war between them over how the United States — the world’s top humanitarian food aid donor — provides food assistance seems likely to continue. The direction of the Food for Peace program has been a contentious topic over the years, causing divisions among key players such as agriculture groups, food processors and nonprofit food aid organizations.

The recently signed 2014 farm bill gives the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture more leeway to use money to buy emergency food closer to areas of need. USAID also would be able to cut back on the criticized practice of selling U.S. food abroad to raise money for nonemergency development projects.

But the Obama administration failed to persuade Congress to shift up to 85 percent of the Food for Peace funding out of the USDA and into USAID. Also largely unchanged is the policy of buying most humanitarian food aid in the United States and then shipping it to overseas destinations aboard U.S.-flagged ships.

The Obama administration and supporters of the change say the current practice is inefficient and reflects the 1954 origins of the program. Its original goal was to aid not only the hungry of the world, but also U.S. agriculture and shipping.

The administration’s call for greater flexibility drew support from the Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union, and multi-national food giant Cargill.

But Ellen Levinson, who represented a coalition of unions, shipping companies, agriculture groups and others opposed to the administration’s proposal, said the would-be reformers reached too far.

The Alliance for Global Food Security, led by Levinson, developed a campaign that highlighted potential job losses in the U.S. commercial shipping fleet and the closing of a market for some U.S. farmers and processors. The campaign also played to lawmakers’ emotions by noting that more cash purchases overseas would mean fewer bags of food with a U.S. logo to remind recipients which country provided the aid.

Sen. Mark Pryor, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, pulled one of the bags out for display when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified in defense of the administration’s plan. The Arkansas Democrat seemed unswayed by Vilsack’s assurances that up to 55 percent of the money could still be spent in the United States.

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