Hurting the hungry

The following editorial appeared recently in the Washington Post.

Costly, inefficient and skewed to benefit domestic special interests rather than starving people overseas, U.S. food aid programs are overdue for reform. Both President Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, advocated such changes, only to be defeated by maritime and agriculture lobbies on Capitol Hill.

The most recent farm bill, signed into law by President Obama in February, included a few remnants of the president's ambitious plans to buy and distribute more food grown near recipients abroad, as opposed to the costly current practice of shipping U.S.-grown products on U.S.-flagged ships. But basically, the old system that treats food aid as a means of subsidizing U.S. farmers and shipping companies, rather than as a means of helping the hungry, remained intact.

Or so it seemed until April 1, when the House of Representatives approved a measure that would actually take a step backward. Specifically, the House passed an appropriations bill for the Coast Guard with a provision that would require 75 percent of all U.S. food aid to travel on U.S.-flagged vessels, up from 50 percent under current law. The U.S. Agency for International Development says the bill would increase annual shipping costs by $75 million, an expense that will have to be subtracted directly from the amount of food it can afford to distribute to those in need. And USAID is already facing a $75 million funding cut.

Politically unrealistic though it may be to reform food aid in the short term, at least Congress can avoid making matters worse. Though the House measure slipped through on a voice vote before opponents could mobilize, the Obama administration and nongovernmental organizations that support reform are urging the Senate to delete the House provision from its version of the Coast Guard funding bill. Senators should not only follow that advice but also look for ways to rekindle the reform effort that fell short in the farm bill debate.

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