Catholic Relief Services is supportive of a proposal to make changes in the way that government food aid is delivered internationally, provided that it has long-term provisions that will not be subject to annual budget debates.

Recently, the Obama administration proposed shifting the model for international food aid. Under the current model, money is used to purchase food produced in the U.S. and ship it overseas. The new proposal would rely more heavily on purchasing food locally in impoverished and disaster-stricken nations.

"This set of reforms offers a great deal of flexibility and ways to make food programming more efficient and to enable us to use our local purchase mechanism to support the local farmer and the household which needs food," said Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, Catholic Relief Service's public donor group director.

"But the concern we are raising is that there's got to be an authorizing framework in place to make sure that it's a consistent program available year upon year....that the vehicle for this funding stays in place," she told CNA on April 18.

The president's recent budget proposal suggests shifting funds from the Food for Peace Act to USAID, a government agency responsible for administering foreign aid. This would allow greater freedom in how the funds are utilized than at present.

A 2011 USAID report estimated that cash-based programs such as local purchasing could save 25-50 percent in food aid costs, and do so much more quickly.

"Buying food locally, instead of in the United States, costs much less," Rajiv Shah, director of USAID, said at an April 10 meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That's because the average prices of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has increased from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 today."

"We agree with the goals of the president's proposal," said Kuennen-Asfaw. "We've been working for quite a few of these reforms over a long period of time, and we feel that the reforms being proposed would be very helpful as long as they are enshrined in some sort of a legislative authorizing mechanism."

Without an authorizing framework giving "substantial long-term support to those programs," she explained, the proposal would be "subject to the whims of every single budget year."

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"Presidential initiatives come and go, and support for specific budget lines may come and go. But the needs of the poor and vulnerable are ongoing."

Catholic Relief Services says the flexibility of the new proposal is of the utmost importance. The kind of aid that will be most helpful in any particular situation is "very context-specific" and shouldn't be hampered by red tape.

The Catholic agency provides food aid using both food procured in the U.S. and local purchase programs.

Currently, much of U.S. government food aid is done by purchasing food from American producers and paying to have it shipped internationally. That system is perceived to be grossly inefficient in many sectors.

"Where there is the appropriate food available in the local market, it supports local agriculture and processing," explained Kuennen-Asfaw. "The whole value chain for local development can be supported by providing cash instead of bringing food in."

But when there isn't sufficient food available, as in an acute crisis situation, it can be better to avoid large-scale local purchasing lest aid agencies push food prices "above the reach of those who previously were able to afford it," she remarked.

Typically, though, "we would be able to incorporate fresh fruit and vegetables and perhaps some animal proteins with a local purchase program, whereas it's hard to do that kind of thing when we have something procured in the U.S. and shipped around the world," said Kuennen-Asfaw.

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"We would be able to utilize foods appropriate for local tastes and consumption habits, so when we build our nutrition messages around the program, we're talking about things people use on a daily basis instead of something foreign. So it's those kinds of considerations that have encouraged us … to procure food locally, where it's appropriate and feasible for us to do so."

Catholic Relief Services makes a point of doing market analysis before and during food aid interventions, to protect against doing harm to local agricultural economies.

When doing food purchasing programs, the organization can provide vouchers to needy families so that they can purchase food from vendors whose food safety and quality has been verified.

Obama's proposal is supported by the head of USAID, but it has met with resistance on Capitol Hill. Both the shipping and domestic agricultural industries benefit from the Food for Peace Act.

To allay the fears of those groups, the proposal ensures that at least 55 percent of funding for emergency food assistance will continue to be used for providing goods produced in the U.S.