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Originally published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 5:31 PM

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Guest: How U.S. foreign aid can feed more for less

For decades, U.S. aid has fed millions overseas but the policy is stuck in a time warp, writes guest columnist Neal Keny-Guyer.

Special to The Times

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FOREIGN-AID debates can quickly get complicated. Should the U.S. provide aid to Egypt after political upheaval there? How can we assist Syrians trapped by conflict? Can building better schools and more productive farms also create stability in fragile states like Afghanistan? These are difficult, complex questions with no easy answers.

But some aid debates are just not that complicated.

Reforming U.S. policy on food aid is — or at least, should be — a no-brainer. For decades, U.S. aid has fed millions overseas but the policy is stuck in a time warp and has failed to keep up with 21st-century innovations and smarter practices. With common-sense modifications, U.S. food assistance could reach 4 million more hungry people abroad each year at no added cost to taxpayers.

Yet policymakers have been reluctant to take the steps needed to make this a reality. Congressional members — including U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and Denny Heck, D-Wash. — recently voted against reform.

Here is how it currently works: Tons of American-grown food such as wheat, corn and soybeans is sent on U.S. flag-bearing ships to far-flung parts of the world. That sounds helpful, and in many cases it has been, but purchasing and shipping food from the U.S. is expensive and it takes months, time that hungry people often do not have.

In some parts of the world, food is available much closer to home, in the same region or even the same country, but U.S. aid policies have heavily restricted or outright blocked its purchase. President George W. Bush created pilot programs to test the feasibility of buying food locally and pro-reform members of Congress supported them. In his proposed budget earlier this year, President Obama recommended significant expansion of these programs.

Mercy Corps has run several of these local purchase pilots in Niger, Haiti and Kyrgyzstan. Mercy Corps and other aid organizations have documented that this way of providing food is 25 percent less expensive and much faster in meeting emergency needs.

Another area of incredible inefficiency is monetization, a process by which aid organizations are given American-grown food that we resell in poor countries to finance our work. As an example, Mercy Corps is helping people in the Democratic Republic of Congo to boost nutrition, increase the yields of farmers and improve governance. This work is funded by the U.S. government through large shipments of winter wheat that we resell in Congo.

The inefficiencies are glaring: forcing aid organizations into the unlikely role of food resellers, spending massive amounts of money on transportation and creating a huge carbon footprint along the way.

Not surprisingly, this process loses an average of 24 cents on the dollar. In places like Congo, it can lose even more depending on transport costs and local market demand. This leaves money on the table that could help suffering people.

Mercy Corps and many other humanitarian organizations would like to see an expansion in the scope of local food-purchase programs and a reduction in monetization. Both steps would help feed more malnourished people faster and give U.S. taxpayers better bang for their aid buck.

With more than 870 million people around the globe going hungry, it is critical that food-aid funding remains robust. Foreign aid is a tiny expenditure representing less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget, and food aid represents just 3 percent of this 1 percent.

Its payoff in helping people in need, building global goodwill and showing American leadership is tremendous.

Reform can happen now. The farm bill, which will govern agriculture and food-aid policies for the next five years, is currently being hashed out in Congress. Lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., are already pushing for change.

We encourage Washingtonians to urge their members of Congress to support food-aid reform efforts. The rare opportunity to feed millions of hungry people and save millions of taxpayer dollars should not be squandered.

Neal Keny-Guyer is CEO of humanitarian organization Mercy Corps based in Portland.

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