The House of Representatives has voted 216-208 to approve its version of a farm bill, allowing both chambers of Congress to begin talks on a final version for the first time in a year. That could mean big changes to international food aid funding if a new farm bill gets approved later this summer.

For the past 60 years, the United States has shipped wheat, rice, and other commodities across oceans to feed the world's poor. But that could change by September, if Congress approves proposals that would fight global hunger not with food, but with cash.

Most international aid organizations agree that the current system needs reform. Yet faith-based groups Bread for the World, World Vision, and Food for the Hungry are split over which plan—the current one that uses American goods, or a new system that relies on cash—will feed the greatest number of people.

The most extreme changes on the table, proposed by the White House, would do away with a 1950s-era Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy that requires all food aid purchases to be made from domestic growers. Instead, 45 percent of the Food for Peace program's funds would be budgeted from the USDA to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for use in other forms, including local and regional purchases of food (LRP), cash transfers, and vouchers for hunger-stricken communities.

Bread for the World sees the proposals as an opportunity to feed more people with the same amount of money, said Craig Moscetti, international policy analyst. If the government allowed aid organizations to use other development methods, aid could reach countries more quickly.

Food for Peace does not currently allow aid organizations to partner with local farmers in poverty-stricken areas to provide food for their communities. Yet a recent USDA pilot program found that LRP resulted in food aid reaching people more than two months faster.

"That's really the goal," said Moscetti. "To move to a system that's more flexible and allows program implementers to use a variety of tools depending on the context."

That could benefit violence-ridden countries such as Syria and Somalia, where food can't simply be handed out to hungry people, said Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and speechwriter for former President George W. Bush. "If USAID had more flexibility to use cash benefits, it would be able to help more people in more effective ways," he told CT.

However, World Vision isn't certain that the proposed changes truly would be more effective, said Robert Zachritz, senior director for advocacy and government relations. Because the funds would remain within USDA's overall budget with reduced oversight, no one could guarantee that the funds were being spent on food aid.

"In the political world, the risk is the agriculture committee would allocate the money to other things," he said.

Dave Evans, U.S. president of Food for the Hungry, agreed. The domestic-focused USDA has no real interest in international food aid outside of its benefit to American farmers, he said. "Congress is looking for every way they can find to cut the budget, so if Obama converts it all to cash, the House could . . . cut it, and then it's gone."

Ideally, funds would be budgeted directly to USAID, but this is not one of the current options on the table. However, World Vision and Food for the Hungry do support more modest reforms, such as those included in the House and Senate farm bills. The Senate approved a version in June that leaves Food for Peace intact and allocates an additional $20 million toward LRP, but such provisions aren't included in today's House-approved version.

World Vision also supports a government-created fund to address chronic food insecurity in crisis regions—as long as the fund is linked to the Food for Peace "safe box," said Zachritz. This approach would preserve current levels of food aid while allowing other money to be spent on LRP development.

Still, he said, it's important to remember that the existing program is "excellent," feeding 45 million people in 2012.

"Can you take it and improve it? Absolutely," he said. "But we [need to] advance reform and flexibility in a politically viable, practical manner that increases the number of people fed and does no harm."

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