Emerson pushes to increase funding for food aid program

Monday, March 26, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- Rep. Jo Ann Emerson is pushing to increase funding for an international food aid and education program that has seen a dramatic drop in financial support in recent years.

The American Soybean Association says the program helps poor children, soybean farmers and America's image abroad.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture operates the program, which has fed more than 26 million children in 41 countries. It supplies food for schools and pays cooks to prepare it. The program also helps teach family about nutrition.

Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who co-chairs the Congressional Hunger Caucus, saw firsthand how such programs can help the world's poor.

On a recent trip to Nicaragua, one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, she saw children in a village being fed and educated through a program sponsored by the Springfield, Mo.-based Rainbow Network. That program mirrors the McGovern-Dole program started by Congress in 2000 that Emerson says is underfunded.

The program, named for former Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole, was allocated $300 million in 2000, but now gets only $100 million.

Legislation Emerson filed last week seeks to lock in mandatory funding minimums for the program. The bill also calls for an additional $40 million each year so the program can return to $300 million by 2012.

"It's one of those programs where it does an awful lot of good. It makes a difference," Ron Croushorn, director of food assistance programs for the department, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But we always face the reality of what we can do within our budget. We make do."

The program works by giving children free school meals. In order to eat, children have to go to the local school. And once they're there, they can be taught.

The food aid program has boosted overall school attendance rates in foreign lands by 14 percent -- even higher for female students.

"That's the nice thing -- it isn't just a food aid program, it isn't just about feeding hungry kids. It's about long-term development," said Jim Hershey, who oversees food aid programming for the American Soybean Association, which is based in St. Louis.

Soybean producers benefit from the program, too. The Agriculture Department buys soy products in the United States for the overseas program.

In the last year, the American Soybean Association has made campaign donations to Emerson ($1,000), Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo. ($4,000) and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois ($1,000). Durbin, like Emerson, is sponsoring the bill to bolster the food aid program.

The program helps everyone involved, Hershey said. Children get nutritious meals and an education, America's international image gets a boost and soy farmers can help their bottom line while supporting a good cause, he said.

"Farmers believe this is a good use of government resources and a great opportunity to help the world develop," he said.

Emerson contends that the program even helps America in the war against terrorism. Ideally, the children will grow up viewing the United States as a nation that fed them and helped educate them, she said.

"It's a very good down payment on our national security," she said. "I believe there is an enormous, enormous connection. And food aid is really the beginning."

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