March 20, 2008 / 11:06 PM / 12 years ago

US groups urge 70 pct jump in 11th-hour food aid

(Adds comment from aid group graph 16)

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - Aid groups are asking Congress for a 70 percent increase in supplemental funding this year to ensure that historically high commodity prices don’t truncate U.S. food aid donations.

The groups say at least $600 million is needed this year to avoid gaps in food donations and help those hardest hit by skyrocketing prices for staples like bread and milk.

"Without increased funding ... food aid programs that help low-income and food-deficit countries, malnourished infants and children, desperately poor families and people affected by crises will be cut back," a coalition of 17 aid groups said in a letter this week to House and Senate appropriators.

Congress has yet to act on a months-old Bush administration request for $350 million in supplemental spending in fiscal 2008 for Food for Peace, the largest U.S. food aid program. So far the administration has not expanded its request.

Food for Peace has been budgeted about $1.2 billion in recent years, but Congress routinely steps in with supplemental funds to staunch hunger crises in places like Sudan.

Yet the perennial funding debate becomes more urgent as a dramatic run-up in commodity prices strains aid budgets.

Prices for crops like wheat, corn and soybeans have hit record highs in step with poor harvests, growing biofuel production and surging demand in the developing world.

In 2007, global food prices rose close to 40 percent, according to the United Nations. Even after sharp declines on commodity markets this week, prices remain high.

Food for Peace has watched its commodity costs jump by 41 percent since last fall, and is bracing for pared donations.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees food aid funding, promised to consider the request.

"It is troubling that escalating food prices are reducing the amount of food available for important food aid programs, yet we have not seen revised requests for additional funds from the administration," said DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.

The Alliance for Food Aid is not alone in arguing for increased aid funding up front, instead of last-minute supplementals that threaten to delay aid or increase costs.

Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and six other Democratic senators recently asked that supplemental aid funds, rolled up with extra funding for Iraq, be increased to $550 million.

The bill could go to a vote as early as April.

But the aid groups, which specialize in using commodity donations to help fund long-term development work in poor countries, may be the most vulnerable if cash-strapped officials decide to shift money toward emergency donations.

"The Bush administration has made it clear that emergency food aid is their main ... priority" within Food for Peace, said David Evans of aid group Food for the Hungry.

They are also fighting for a larger share of the Food for Peace budget in the 2008 farm bill, a giant agriculture law now stalled between the House and Senate. Critics say the move would drain money needed for emergencies.

The alliance also has asked Congress for $100 million in supplemental funds to rebuild an emergency reserve, the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, which contains mostly wheat.

"Many people in poor countries are in a precarious situation caused by high commodity prices, conflict, droughts and flooding and it is important ... to be ready to respond," said Ellen Levinson, who heads the alliance.

Levinson said the trust could be used to "fill in the gap while Congress considers supplemental funding."

Officials have not said if they will tap the trust.

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