The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Food aid reform is running into trouble in Congress

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One of the attention-grabbing ideas in the White House's 2014 budget was a big overhaul of the $1.4 billion U.S. food aid program. Instead of buying food from U.S. farmers and shipping it overseas, some of the money would just be sent directly to poor countries.

Development experts were enthusiastic, arguing the change would allow food aid programs to feed millions more people at lower cost. And, they said, the reforms could soften some of the harm done by U.S. aid to farmers in developing nations.

But the White House's proposal has run into sharp resistance from members of Congress, who worry that U.S. farmers and ships will lose out. This week, both the House and the Senate agricultural committees marked up their versions of the new five-year farm bill. Neither one included the White House's food-aid proposal. That leaves only a bipartisan bill from leaders of the House foreign relations committee — but even that faces a difficult climb.

"There's more support for reform inside Congress than has generally been reported," says Ben Grossman-Cohen, a spokesman for Oxfam America. "But it's also true that there's a good reason these reforms haven't happened before. It's a challenging political issue."

Here's the back-story: For decades, aid agencies have bought food from U.S. farmers and shipped it on U.S.-flagged ships to needy countries overseas as part of the Food for Peace program. All told, the program has fed some 1 billion people since 1954.

But the program is also fairly inefficient. The requirements to buy from U.S. farmers and use U.S.-flagged ships creates delays and extra costs. The Government Accountability Office found that all these requirements reduced the cost-effectiveness of aid programs by 25 percent. Back in 2007, the New York Times put together a graphic illustrating the long journey in getting food to poor countries like Zambia:

What's more, the U.S. program has been criticized for hurting foreign farmers in impoverished countries like Malawi and Mozambique, who can be driven out of business when a rush of cheap foreign food enters the local market.

So, in its 2014 budget, the White House wanted to simplify the process. Nearly half of the $1.4 billion in food-aid money would instead be spent directly in the needy countries — either through bulk purchases of food from local farmers or by distributing vouchers to individuals. And the program would be run by USAID rather than the Agriculture Department.

Proponents argued that this change would allow the United States to feed an extra 4 million people each year for the same amount of money. "Doing so," wrote Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Center for Global Development, "would both save the US taxpayer money and ensure that food assistance reaches the hungry and malnourished much faster."

Still, many lawmakers aren't convinced: Both Republicans and Democrats have objected to the plan, saying that it would hurt U.S. farmers, ships, and ports. Here's a letter that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote to their colleagues, urging them to maintain the status quo:

The purchase of food from U.S. farmers and its subsequent shipment on U.S.-flagged vessels has helped support U.S. farm production and preserve the U.S. merchant marine.
Reductions in funding for this program – or changes in how it operates – would significantly reduce the amount of U.S. farm products our nation could provide to those in need around the world.  It would also threaten our national security preparedness by reducing the domestic sealift capacity on which our U.S. military depends.

Key members of the Senate are similarly opposed, with the heads of the agricultural committee, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), stressing the importance of the current program for U.S. farmers.

So far, these arguments are carrying the day. Perhaps more surprisingly, these arguments are swaying even those members of Congress who agree that the White House's reforms make sense in principle.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) told my colleagues on the editorial board that Obama's reforms are sensible in “an ideal world,” but they ignore political realities. It's difficult to maintain support for food-aid programs, he said, unless they also benefit powerful stakeholders like farmers and merchant mariners. In other words, inefficiency is simply the price that has to be paid to get any foreign aid at all.

So is there any way things could change? Here's one possibility: Rep. Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, have put forward their own bill that would mirror Obama's reforms. Their pitch? U.S. farmers don't actually need the help. "With food aid currently comprising just 0.86% of total U.S. agricultural exports and 0.56% of net farm income," they note, "the impact of this shift will be negligible."

For now, however, it's unlikely that there will be much more than small tweaks. The recently passed Senate farm bill mark-up did include about $60 million over five years to buy food locally in developing countries — but that's much smaller than Obama's proposal. The House farm bill, meanwhile, contained virtually no reforms.

Related: The AP has a helpful short breakdown of the House and Senate farm bills.