06/14/2013 07:52 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

While We Talk Reform, U.S. Food Assistance Is Under Attack

This year's federal budget and appropriations season has generated a lot of buzz and media around reforming U.S. food assistance programs. But while some of us have been talking about improving aid delivery, others -- in high places -- have proposed alarming cuts to food assistance programs altogether.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have proposed cutting the life-saving Food for Peace program by 20 percent. That adds up to cutting food assistance to nearly eight million people suffering from hunger in places like the drought-prone Sahel and conflict-torn Syria. These cuts are not just numbers. We are talking about people going hungry in a world where enough food is produced for everyone.

On Thursday the House Appropriations committee adopted this drastically-low funding level, setting up a vote by the full House later this month. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to release its funding allocations next week and begin work on appropriations bills that will determine funding for individual programs such as Food for Peace.

We cannot remain silent on this.

The Food for Peace program has helped more than three billion people in more than 150 countries since 1954 primarily through emergency food assistance. And since 2008, this hallmark program has been cut by more than 30 percent, despite the fact that we are living in a world where more people are displaced than at any other time in the past 15 years, and one in eight people -- 870 million -- are hungry. Another 20 percent hit is not just a step in the wrong direction -- it is a leap in the wrong direction -- one that weakens our nation's stance as a moral leader helping those who need it most.

Ever since the president released his fiscal year 2014 budget proposal, and even before then, many of us who work on hunger and nutrition issues have been trying to reform food assistance policies so that, with the same amount of resources, we can help more people live healthy lives.

InterAction and other NGOs agreed on a set of principles to help guide efforts to reform food assistance programs. These include ensuring that any reforms protect the core focus and effective elements of existing food assistance programs, increasing the number of people helped, improving the flexibility of programs, and ensuring any reforms are made in an open, transparent and inclusive process.

While these reforms are important, ensuring adequate funding for food assistance is foundational. These programs are literally saving lives, as well as empowering families to provide better opportunities for their children. Consider Lucia's story. Her decision to join a food program in Guatemala with her 16-month-old baby, Maria, changed her daughter's life. Her baby had been sick often, underdeveloped and inactive. After attending monthly educational sessions taught in the local Q'eqchi language, Lucia started making healthier choices for her baby. This Mercy Corps program, funded by Food for Peace, prevents malnutrition before it starts.

We need to push ahead on reform, but we need to act now to prevent drastic cuts that could affect people like Lucia and her daughter. Under the bill that the House Appropriations Committee approved Thursday, Food for Peace programs would be funded at $1.15 billion -- a 19.9 percent or $285 million cut from fiscal year 2013 enacted levels. As Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) said in the Appropriations Committee mark-up on Thursday, more than seven million people could be denied food assistance as a result of the cuts -- that's the population of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Tucsoncombined. What's more is that these cuts are disproportionate -- while the overall allocation for the agriculture bill in the House is equal to last year's enacted funding levels, the amount for food assistance is being slashed. This is the definition of a disproportionate cut. And hungry people around the world will be suffering for it.

As Rep. Farr affirmed yesterday, "As a super power in this world we have a responsibility and a moral obligation to help those in need." Congress should appropriate no less than $1.5 billion for Food for Peace programs in order to continue our country's moral obligation to help the world's hungry feed themselves and pull themselves out of poverty. It is my hope that the Senate will provide much needed leadership on this issue as it moves forward with its appropriations process and considers funding levels for U.S. international food assistance programs. We should do all we can to urge our elected officials to fully fund Food for Peace. The world's hungry are counting on it.

Katie Lee is the advocacy and policy coordinator for international development at InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 U.S.-based NGOs, and formerly served on the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.