The generous international food aid program run by the United States is past due for reforms, but farm state lawmakers of both parties are standing in the way. Needed changes recommended by President Barack Obama would provide more food to more hungry people, faster and more cheaply. But the agriculture committees in the House and Senate have rejected most of Obama's changes. Lawmakers shamefully put a higher value on protecting special interests than feeding the world's hungry.
The United States is the largest supplier of food assistance in the world, spending $1.4 billion on international food aid every year and saving millions of lives in the process. But the program is highly inefficient. The law makes the program a boondoggle for farm and shipping interests, requiring 75 percent of the aid to be in the form of commodities transported using U.S.-flagged vessels. The United States is the only nation that sends food instead of direct funding assistance, and that adds 30 percent or more to the cost of food and 14 weeks to delivery times.
Under Obama's proposed budget, nearly half of the food aid dollars would flow in the form of cash assistance to buy food supplies in and around the areas of crisis, boosting the prospects of local farmers. About 4 million more people would be fed this way, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, and far more quickly.
Opponents of change say it would cost American jobs and could strip away political support for food aid programs since the shipping industry and agribusiness would have a lesser stake. The farm bills passed by the House and Senate agriculture committees reauthorized the food aid program without adopting much in the way of reform. This bipartisan resistance is the same that confronted President George W. Bush when he tried to implement similar reforms.
Obama is also meeting resistance in his attempt to end "monetization," a controversial and counterproductive practice that allows charities to sell some of the American-grown food in impoverished nations to fund their development programs. The international charity CARE stopped doing this in 2007 — giving up $45 million in the process — because of how the sales competed with and hurt local farmers. But international charities that rely on the money want it retained.
Farm state members of Congress have succeeded in the past in blocking sensible and humane changes. It seems to be one of the few points of bipartisan agreement in Congress. This time, for the sake of hunger's victims, they should not succeed.