Farm Bill Negotiators Cut Funds for Overseas School Lunch Program

By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

House and Senate negotiators bargaining over a new farm bill have reduced funding for a key school lunch program for poor children abroad and agreed to sharply expand nutrition programs for low-income families and children in the United States.

The move came as conferees from the two chambers neared completion of the nearly $300 billion, five-year bill, which finances food stamps, farm subsidies, rural soil and water conservation programs and bio-energy initiatives. About two-thirds of the money goes to nutrition programs.

Under a deal worked out in the last few days, required spending on the Dole-McGovern International Food for Education program was set at $60 million. That is $780 million less than proposed by the House, and $40 million less than was allocated in the expiring farm bill.

Nearly 40 countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya, have benefited from the food-for-education program. Food dispensed to schools in poor countries through groups such as the U.N. World Food Program provides incentives for children to attend school, advocates say.

The congressional action comes against a backdrop of sporadic violence related to soaring food prices in some impoverished nations. Troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, opened fire amid tens of thousands of rioters yesterday, killing two people, news agencies reported.

President Bush last week asked Congress to approve $770 million in new global food aid in the coming fiscal year in response to the spreading crisis. House Democratic leaders may increase that amount and may require that some of the aid be dispensed more quickly.

The food-for-education program, which is named for former senators Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), spent approximately $91 million to provide 118,000 tons of food to 3.4 million children in 15 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe in 2005, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program results in more children enrolled in school, improved student performance, and greater parental and community involvement in education, according to a USDA summary.

"I can't figure why [the international school feeding program] was tossed aside," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leading advocate for the program. He is not related to George McGovern.

House lawmakers blamed the Senate. "There was no support for it there. We ran into a brick wall," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of those representing the House in the talks.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), leader of the Senate team, responded that because nutrition dollars were limited, "we applied most of the funds to assistance for U.S. families and children, with the expectation that foreign food assistance would continue to be funded primarily through annual appropriations bills, as has long been done."

Nutrition programs generally have fared well in the farm bill negotiations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made increasing food aid to low-income families at home a top priority in the farm bill, which she strongly supports despite a veto threat by Bush.

House and Senate negotiators agreed to add $10.4 billion for the food stamp program and other nutrition initiatives that benefit low-income families here. In addition, $1 billion was allocated to a program championed by Harkin that provides fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks in schools.

Harkin said yesterday that he supports the Dole-McGovern program and will work to make sure that future annual spending bills increase food aid allocations. Aides stressed that there was no attempt during the negotiations to pit domestic and foreign food programs against each other.

Dan Morgan is a contract writer for The Post and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

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