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U.N. food aid funds growing, but needs growing too

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The World Food Program, facing an unprecedented surge in the price of food it buys for the world’s hungry, has secured about 60 percent of the extra funds it needs to cover planned aid donations this year, the head of the United Nations agency said on Tuesday.

“We put out an extra appeal for $755 million and we’re about 60 percent of the way there,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said during a speech at a Washington think tank.

But the agency said it already has had to cut some of the food rations it provides, and its $755-million gap does not include new, emerging hunger needs that will require an additional $418 million to $430 million this year.

Sheeran, a former Bush administration official, said the world’s food delivery system was “groaning under the strain of sky-rocketing demand, the soaring cost of inputs, depleted stocks, crop loss due to drought, floods and severe weather.”

Higher global prices for basic foodstuffs such as bread, rice and milk may have brought on a crisis that could be the first truly globalized humanitarian emergency, she said.

World leaders are calling for urgent steps to ease the soaring costs, to create a larger cushion of food across harvests, and to diffuse the food panic that has triggered protests across the developing world.

“It is said that a hungry man is an angry man,” Sheeran said. Global food prices jumped an annual 43 percent through March, according to the U.S. government.

The trend is believed to be deepening poverty, especially for food-importing nations like Nicaragua, pushing more people into hunger as buying power shrinks for food aid budgets.

Donor nations like Canada, Australia and Britain have stepped up pledges to help WFP cope with soaring costs. The United States, the world’s largest food aid donor and WFP’s top supporter, last month released 260,000 metric tons of wheat from an emergency crop trust.

Last week, President George W. Bush announced plans, which must be approved by Congress, to spend an additional $770 million on food aid and agriculture development in the fiscal year beginning October 1.

For countries where people spend up to three-quarters of their income on food, experts say time is of the essence.

The Bush administration already has requested $350 million in last-minute food aid funding for this fiscal year, a perennial addition to annual budgeted funds.

On Tuesday, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives announced that they would try to add another $500 million for emergency food aid.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the money would be attached to a massive Iraq war funding bill that could be debated on the House floor on Thursday.

It was unclear if Bush would veto the spending bill if it contained too much spending that he did not call for.

The Bush administration also is seeking flexibility to buy more food overseas for aid programs, in hopes of making aid dollars go further.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by David Gregorio