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Let’s Enact Food Aid Reform That Works | Commentary

The House of Representatives recently defeated an amendment that would have enacted the Obama administration’s proposal to allow 45 percent of Food for Peace Program funds to be given as cash or used to buy food aid commodities overseas, rather than buying them in the United States. The debate showed great concern that reducing U.S.-sourced food aid would endanger the future availability of food assistance by eroding a sizable U.S. food aid constituency and reducing the accountability of our precious food assistance dollars. Importantly, the discussion also showed a growing recognition that U.S.-sourced commodities are not always enough: buying food locally when feasible and incorporating developmental tools into our food security tool kit are also needed.

Norman Borlaug said, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.” Congress has the chance to enact legislation that will both cultivate the fields in developing countries and guarantee that food assistance is available to the most vulnerable. It is time to come together to support a package of reforms that will work on the ground and ensure a strong constituency for American food assistance. It is not a question of whether one approach is better than the other; a variety of approaches are needed to fight hunger and meet food needs.

People struggling with hunger need Food for Peace’s time-tested, lifesaving programs and America needs the national security and economic stimulus it provides both in the United States and in food-deprived countries. The president also needs the flexibility to procure commodities overseas and to distribute funds to victims of disaster, which is funded through International Disaster Assistance. Congress should strengthen and adequately fund these programs and support efforts of developing countries to improve their food systems, continuing a long-standing and foundational principle shared by many Americans to end world hunger.

We propose a four-part, common-sense solution that assures America remains the world leader in fighting hunger through effective and accountable programs.

First, Congress should reauthorize and maintain funding for the Food for Peace, Food for Progress, and McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition programs. Thanks to these programs, U.S. food assistance is the most comprehensive and responsive worldwide. Well-honed procurement and distribution systems assure that 99 percent of food aid reaches the truly needy. A budget of $1.5 billion for the Food for Peace Program helps 50 million people each year at a cost per recipient that is lower than most other foreign assistance. It provides a variety of U.S. commodities and specialized, fortified foods, improving nutrition and giving the most vulnerable the chance to live healthy, productive lives.

Second, we urge Congress to continue supporting the use of $400 million of Food for Peace funds for capacity-building programs that target poor populations where hunger is a daily challenge. Congress should add flexibility to use development assistance funds to support the training and technical assistance associated with these programs. In this way, the United States gets more bang for the buck: providing food aid to people who have too little to eat as well as building their capacity to meet their own food needs through improved agriculture, nutrition and incomes. In the long run, this reduces the need for emergency food aid.

Third, Congress should increase funding for international disaster assistance to give the president greater flexibility to provide cash support to victims of disaster and to buy food aid close to where an emergency occurs — if it is available. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been using this program for the past four years, but more funding is needed because of the complex crises in Syria and northern Africa.

Lastly, legislation is needed to secure long-term support for an effective plan to cut hunger and improve food systems in developing countries, a “Global Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Security Act.” The list of challenges is long, including small farm plots coupled with extreme poverty, poor agricultural productivity and substandard post-harvest, warehousing, marketing, quality control and nutrition systems. Over the past few years, Congress has funded the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, which is tackling many of these issues. However, changing the dynamics in a developing country takes time, and enactment of legislation would set the stage for longer-term U.S. engagement and support.

George Guimaraes is president and CEO of PCI, Crispian Kirk is president and CEO of OIC International, and Ellen Levinson is the executive director of the Alliance for Global Food Security, a coalition of humanitarian and development organizations.

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