The European Union's executive body called for a massive boost to the food aid the bloc gives its poorest inhabitants, warning that soaring food prices meant that the current system is no longer sufficient.
The EU's food aid scheme has undergone several notable evolutions
Under the Commission's proposal, authored by its Agriculture Department, the EU's current budget for food aid would increase by almost 70 percent to roughly 500 million euros ($710.7 million) and be broadened to cover more food products, a statement released in Brussels said.
"Stocks are at an all-time low, the number of needy people has increased and food prices have recently risen sharply," said the statement, released on Wednesday, Sept. 17. "The (European) Commission believes it is vital to increase spending on the scheme and to allow food purchases on the open market."
Given the soaring food prices of the last two years, and the parallel reduction to near-zero levels of the EU's food stocks, Europe's poor were having a tough time feeding themselves, EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told a news conference Wednesday.
"The recent hike in food prices has hit every one of us, in particular the most underprivileged members of our society," she said. "We cannot resolve all food poverty in the EU, but we can make a significant contribution.”
Proposal awaits EU members' approval
Boel said high food prices led to EU food poverty
Under the proposal, which has to be approved by member states, each country would have to decide what kind of food it wanted to buy over a three-year period.
If EU farm ministers agree, food distribution plans will be set up in cooperation with charities and local social services, and with EU countries choosing the food they want, based on nutritional criteria.
Priority will be given to intervention stocks where these are available but no longer be limited to those for which the intervention system applies -- the scheme will also cover fruit, vegetables and cooking oil, for example, for the first time.
Otherwise, food purchases will be made by public tender.
The EU's central budget would pay 75 percent of the total cost over 2010-2012, and 50 percent from 2013.
EU food aid's beginning
The EU's food aid scheme was set up in 1987, at a time when the bloc's agriculture policy had led to the creation of embarrassing food surpluses labeled "wine lakes" and "grain mountains" which member states then bought to guarantee farmers an income.
Agriculture policy makes up one of the EU's largest budget items
At that stage, the scheme allowed EU member states to release the surplus stocks they had bought as food aid to the poor.
However, following changes to the EU's agriculture policy which reduced the scale of the surpluses in the 1990s, the commission began allowing member states to buy extra food on the open market under certain limited circumstances.
The commission now wants EU member states to be allowed to buy food aid whenever surplus stocks are unavailable.
The scheme provided food for over 13 million EU citizens in 2006, officials said.
Food aid reaches millions throughout EU
The commission calculates that some 43 million people in the EU are currently at risk of food poverty, which is defined as not being able to afford one meal of meat, chicken or fish every two days.
Food aid is provided to a wide range of people living in poverty, including families, the elderly, homeless, disabled, migrant workers and asylum seekers in 19 of the EU's 27 countries.
Italy takes the lion's share of current spending on food aid, with about 70 million euros a year, followed by Spain and France.
Austria, Britain, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and the Netherlands do not participate in the current system.