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Editorial: A smarter way to feed more starving people

Palestinians unload bags of flour donated by USAID,

Palestinians unload bags of flour donated by USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, at a depot in the West Bank village of Anin near Jenin. Credit: AP, 2008

A commonsense plan that would allow the United States to feed millions more starving people around the world without spending an additional dime of tax money deserves to sail through Congress.

Regrettably, nothing's ever that simple in Washington.

The nation spends $1.4 billion a year on sustenance for about 31 million victims of famine and war through the Food for Peace program. It's a lifesaving expression of American generosity and compassion.

But under current law, the aid must be in the form of U.S. agricultural products purchased by the government and shipped around the globe on U.S.-flagged ships. President Barack Obama has proposed freeing aid officials to use up to 45 percent of the money to buy food in regions of the world where the aid is needed.

That simple change would cut the expense of shipping that accounts for 25 percent of program spending. Food available in the regions where it was needed cost 20 percent less in 2012 than food bought in the United States, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. And those purchases would have the secondary benefit of supporting farmers and national economies in crisis areas, rather than undermining them by flooding their markets with free food.

This flexible approach would stretch the $1.4 billion we spend to help an additional 2 million to 4 million people a year. Yet such a pragmatic plan has run into opposition from agribusiness and shipping interests, which claim jobs would be lost. But food aid accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. agricultural production. Besides, $800 million of the $1.4 billion would still be spent here.

Congress should stop parochial interests from trumping our ability to feed millions, mostly women and children, dying for want of food.