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Lawmakers Nix Obama's Food Aid Overhaul, but Discuss Compromise

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Johanns is working on negotiating a smaller package of changes to the food aid program, now that it’s clear the administration’s proposed overhaul is going nowhere.

The flexibility the administration was seeking on local procurement of food is also expected to be scaled back drastically, although there are still discussions about giving the government more money for local food purchases.

“I think there is an option to boost some funding for emergency aid,” said Johanns, which he said “makes sense because there are certain instances where you need food at the site really fast.”

“I would support an effort to try and deal with those circumstances,” he said.

According to Johanns, there are a “number of vehicles” under consideration on that front. One possibility, he said, is to increase by some smaller percentage the amount of money allowed to be spent on emergency food aid overseas, although it would be well less than the 45 percent that was the maximum amount allowed in the White House request.

Looking for Common Ground

The Senate farm bill that is currently on the floor proposes extending an existing pilot program on local procurement for emergency food crises, making it a small, but permanent, program. And Johanns and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., have an amendment that would increase the amount of money for that program to $60 million a year. Another option is to move some amount of money into the State Department’s International Disaster Assistance fund to buy food overseas in emergencies.

“Right now everybody’s just trying to figure out whether there’s any common ground,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., another member of the Agriculture and Appropriations committees. Boozman said his support “depends on what the compromise is.”

Advocates of the overhaul are still pushing for an end to the monetization program.

“We are not expecting from what we hear” for it “to be addressed in the farm bill,” said Blake A. Selzer, senior policy advocate at CARE, an international humanitarian organization. But, he said, it could get addressed in the fiscal 2014 appropriations bills.

Johanns sounded a note of caution on changes to that program, as well. “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about limiting that ability, because I think it’s done a lot of good in the past,” he said. “I know it gets criticized but oftentimes what a country is looking for is somebody who will come in and offer a way forward to produce a commodity like milk or whatever. Monetizing the food gives you the ability to do that.”

Selzer said that despite the scaled-back expectations for changes to food aid programs this year, he remains encouraged by what he sees as a “significant shift in the conversation” amid the heightened attention being paid to the issue.

He and other humanitarian groups have highlighted the fact that members of the agricultural industry, such as the National Farmers Union and the private food producer Cargill, have come out in support of increasing how much U.S. food aid can be locally sourced to give donors more flexibility.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum for reform, much more so than in the past year or two,” Selzer said.

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