Obama official cites Syrian famine to press for food aid reforms

The Obama administration is citing the humanitarian crisis in Syria — including mounting reports of starvation — as it lobbies lawmakers to change the way the federal government distributes food aid around the world. 

Administration officials are urging House and Senate negotiators working on the farm bill to adopt provisions that cleared the Senate in June. They say the Senate provisions could help deliver food to 2 million children in and around Syria.

“Right now the Senate provisions would, if enacted, give us the flexibility to reach nearly two million children with life-saving food assistance at a time when the crisis in Syria has completely overwhelmed our ability — and the world's ability — to meet basic humanitarian needs,” U.S. Agency for International Development Rajiv Shah told The Hill.

“We're hopeful that the conference committee will support a vision of the future of food assistance that provides some modest flexibility ... that will allow us to handle and deal better with a just unbelievable humanitarian crisis.”

The push comes amid reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is deliberately starving his opponents by denying rebel enclaves access to food. More than 4 million Syrians — half of them children — don't have enough to eat as winter approaches, according to Save the Children, and there have been reports of dying children and people eating cats, dogs and donkeys.

The Senate provisions fall short of reforms President Obama included in his fiscal 2013 budget, but the administration now sees them as an acceptable compromise. The House farm bill does not include food aid reforms after lawmakers in June voted 220-203 to nix an amendment mirroring Obama's proposal.

Reform proponents say changing the $1.4 billion-a-year food aid program could save millions of dollars and help more people around the world by giving the government the flexibility to use food aid funds to buy food locally instead of shipping it from the United States.

A coalition of agricultural and shipping interests blocked the more far-reaching House proposal, but Shah says he's confident the Senate alternative has a shot.

He called the pared down Senate version “very much a compromise relative to what the president requested” in his budget. 

Shah said it only applies to 20 percent of food aid — versus 45 percent in the defeated House amendment — and would retain the congressional Agriculture committees' purview over the program. He said it preserves the coalition between agricultural, shipping and nonprofit actors needed to make the program viable while tracking results on the ground, such as measuring the size of aid recipients.

“We're hopeful members of the farm bill conference will provide this modest, incremental amount of flexibility that will allow us to respond to the crisis in a very difficult time,” said Shah, who traveled Monday night to the region to monitor humanitarian assistance.

The 41 House and Senate conferees began meeting last week. They hope to have a compromise worked out by the end of the year.

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