WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Senate is poised to vote on 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 are voting on an amendment 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 and Democrat Chris Coons 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 food aid money to more flexible accounts that allow for cash purchases abroad or from U.S. farmers, saying such a move would be more efficient.
But that proposal fell 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 the system of shipping U.S.-grown food abroad has been inefficient and 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. Only a small portion of the U.S. food aid budget allows for cash purchases abroad, and most of that money right now is going to aid people in Syria — diverting funds from other needy people in unstable countries.
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