WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Monday voted to make modest changes to the way international food aid is delivered, a much scaled-back version of an overhaul proposed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.
Senators adopted an amendment by voice vote to a wide-ranging farm bill Monday that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally-grown food close to needy areas abroad. Currently, most food aid is grown in the United States and shipped to developing countries, an approach the Obama administration says is inefficient.
The Senate farm bill would allocate $40 million annually for a local purchase program - an increase from current dollars, but still a small portion of the $1.8 billion spent on food aid. The amendment sponsored by Republican Mike Johanns, of Nebraska, and Democrat Chris Coons, of Delaware, would boost that to $60 million annually.
Many food aid groups have long argued that buying food abroad would be quicker, less expensive and more beneficial to local farmers than the current method that benefits U.S. farmers and shippers. The Obama administration in April proposed shifting almost half of the international food aid money to more flexible accounts that allow for cash purchases abroad, saying such a move would be more efficient.
But that proposal has so far fallen flat in Congress, where farm-state lawmakers who oversee agriculture spending and the farm bill have been reluctant to shift money away from American farmers. Farm and shipping groups launched strong campaigns against the proposal, lining up opposition in both the House and Senate even before Obama proposed the changes in his April budget.
Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has said that changes are necessary as a humanitarian crisis in Syria and recent droughts in Africa have sapped food aid from other countries in need.
He said that buying food locally is often the only practical option in war-torn countries where trucking in large amounts of food is not safe and shipping U.S. food can often take several weeks. Only a small portion of the U.S. food aid budget allows for cash purchases abroad, including the added dollars for the local purchase program.
Aid groups that supported the changes praised the amendment but said they would like to see more significant overhaul.
"This change to the farm bill, while small, will help our aid programs reach more hungry people with life-saving assistance," said Eric Munoz, senior policy advisor for Oxfam America. "We are glad to celebrate any improvement, however modest, that can bring our food aid programs into the 21st century. However, this modest improvement should not be used an excuse to put aside bigger changes that are desperately needed."
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick