Food aid program in sore need of reform

The United States has a proud tradition of supplying food aid to hungry people around the world, whether their plight is due to chronic poverty or sudden natural disaster. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower kicked off the program that would become known as Food for Peace. In the six decades since, global food aid has generated sales for U.S. farmers, business for U.S.-flagged cargo vessels and jobs for U.S. seamen.

But, over time too many dollars ostensibly devoted to helping the poor overseas are instead subsidizing special interests in this country.

Fortunately, President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal 2014 includes a plan to modernize and reform the $1.5 billion U.S. food aid program. Obama would end “monetization,” the inefficient practice whereby the federal government buys commodities from U.S. farmers and ships them abroad to governments and nongovernmental organizations, which sell them in the local market and use the proceeds for development projects.

Obviously, it would be a lot more cost-effective if the United States simply spent the cash directly on development, rather than diverting resources to food purchases and shipping.

Obama’s sensible suggestions have bipartisan support in Congress, which is not surprising, since his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, embraced similar ideas.

Alas, those who benefit from the status quo are pushing back. Merchant-marine unions warn that less work for U.S. vessels will atrophy sealift capability that soldiers need in wartime. Twenty-one senators from farm and coastal states argued in a letter to the White House that the plan could undermine agriculture, “one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus.” But U.S. farmers are already heavily subsidized and prospering. They need less federal support, not more.

The people who have a legitimate claim on the American taxpayer’s aid are the hungry millions overseas. Obama is right to want to supply it as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

The Washington Post