Rep. Royce proposes efficiencies that would expand food aid abroad
Orange County Register -- By ELIZABETH HELD
WASHINGTON – It sounds like an idea that few could oppose. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, is advocating a change to America’s international food aid program that he says would allow the U.S. to feed more people, faster and at a lower cost.
“It’s a reasonable reform that we believe will save millions of lives,” Royce told the Register this week.
But farmers and port workers whose livelihoods are tied to the program object, saying the proposed reform would cost American jobs.
The U.S. government buys commodities such as wheat or other grains from domestic farmers and ships it overseas to troubled countries, such as Ethiopia, South Sudan and Mali. The entire process, beginning with the call for procurement and ending with distribution in the target country, takes four to six months, said Eric Munoz a senior policy analyst at Oxfam America, which supports Royce’s effort.
Royce’s reform would cut that time by disbursing cash transfers or food vouchers, managed by volunteer and intergovernmental organizations, which would be spent locally. President Barack Obama’s administration has estimated that if half of food aid were purchased locally, an additional 4 million people could be reached worldwide.
In July, Royce offered an amendment to the House farm bill that would allow for 45 percent of the international food aid budget to be spent this way, in instances where it makes sense, and cut mandatory spending by $150 million. The amendment failed, 220-203, but gained the support of both party’s leaders.
Royce is making his case again, this time as a member of the farm bill conference committee. The committee’s 44 members are attempting to reconcile by year’s end the House and Senate farm bills, passed earlier this year. Food aid historically makes up a tiny part of the farm bill, which is better known for food stamps and farm subsidies.
Opposition to Royce’s plans comes from shipping unions, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents workers at the Port of Long Beach, and agricultural interests. Both groups say Royce’s proposal would mean fewer American jobs.
Janice Cooper, executive director of the California Wheat Commission, said the wheat industry would be hurt, noting its size and role in international aid. California growers planted more than 700,000 acres of wheat in 2012. In 2009, 34 percent of food aid donations were wheat, the latest figures available.
Cooper also has a larger concern, namely that proposed reforms could undermine the entire international food aid program. Food aid has been effective because it has powerful American lobbies behind it that protect it from budget cuts, she said. Any change could undermine the program’s long-term success by upending that support.
The bill’s supporters disagree. Royce said the majority of companies who do this sort of shipping are Danish; so, few American jobs are at risk. Munoz said reforms were needed, even if it might make funding shakier. “The question is, are we willing to live with programs that are suboptimal to keep funding? Our answer is no,” he said.
“Agricultural exports (are) up … business at ports is booming,” Royce said, “The subsidy program can no longer be justified.”
Royce is working to persuade conference committee members and he believes some sort of compromise is doable. “We have a large constituency for it for the simple reason that with a tough budget we have to do more with less,” he said.