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US food aid reform welcome

President Obama’s new budget contains a sensible and long-overdue reform in how the United States distributes food aid to impoverished nations dependent on foreign help.

The White House would require that nearly half of the $1.4 billion it proposes for food aid be spent to buy food locally in the country needing assistance or distributed in the form of vouchers for local purchases.

This plan has several advantages, not the least of which is that it’s cheaper than the current system. Now, the U.S. Agency for International Development buys the food here at U.S. prices and ships it overseas in U.S.-flagged vessels at considerably greater expense than using foreign-flagged ships.

Buying locally would strengthen the agriculture sector of the afflicted country, where farmers often find themselves undercut by U.S. food being given away or, due to the inevitable pilferage, being sold at cheaper prices on the black market.

The USAID estimates that the savings – 30 percent for some commodities – would be enough to feed an additional 4 million children and that the response time to a request for help would be nearly 14 weeks faster.

Studies have almost uniformly found the current system to be wasteful and inefficient. Despite periodic cries for reform, the Eisenhower-era program hasn’t been altered since 1985. The reason is that a formidable alliance of farm-state lawmakers and the agricultural and shipping lobbies likes the current system – of course, because its members benefit the most – and argues that American dollars should be spent in America.

In deference to the influence of these groups, the Obama administration proposes that 55 percent of U.S. food aid be bought in the U.S. and shipped in U.S. vessels. While not perfect, half a loaf – well, 45 percent – is better than none.

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