When starvation looms, speed is critical.
But while the U.S. provides more emergency food aid than any other country, speed is not what it does best.
Andrew Natsios witnessed this shortcoming firsthand during famine in Somalia in 1991.
“I literally watched children die while we waited for food to arrive,” he said at a congressional hearing last week. “It took two to three months. That is what shocked me into realizing we needed changes to the system.”
That was before President George W. Bush made Natsios head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Natsios helped USAID launch pilot programs testing changes to the 60-year-old Food for Peace program. Now, he wants Congress to go further.
He says more food aid should be purchased from local farmers closer to a crisis, rather than shipping it from the U.S. across thousands of miles of ocean.
However, the proposal faces stiff opposition from the U.S. industries who say the current system is working well.
For six decades, the United States has been the leading supplier of food aid to people in need around the world.
The law governing Food for Peace requires most U.S. food aid to be American-grown crops sent across the ocean on U.S.-flagged ships.
It’s not only slow. It’s expensive, Natsios said. Shipping and handling eats up half the program’s budget.
When the aid finally does arrive, it can wind up hurting local farmers.
"Local produce may not be able to compete,” says Helene Gayle, president of the aid group CARE. “And it ends up often depressing the local agricultural markets, which is exactly counter to what's in the best interest of long-term development."
On the other hand, those farmers could benefit from selling their crops to an aid agency like USAID.
The U.N. World Food Program’s Purchase for Progress program works with small-scale farmers to improve their quality and productivity so they can sell relief supplies to the aid agency.
Tanzanian farmer Emiliana Aligaesha sells beans to WFP to feed hungry people in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I know it’s going to feed people in trouble,” she said, “and it’s good if farmers support people in trouble.”
The aid group Oxfam brought Aligaesha to Washington to tell members of Congress that giving business to small-scale farmers like her can help lift communities out of poverty.
“People will be motivated and cultivate more,” she said. “And if they do this, I believe we can reduce hunger in their family, in their country, even in our neighboring countries.”
Backers want to buy emergency food directly from local farmers or give cash or vouchers so people can buy it from farmers themselves.
But many US millers, farmers, food processors and shippers oppose the idea.
Some in the industry worry over the loss of jobs.
But Paul Green, who manages food aid issues for the North American Millers Association, says food aid is a tiny sliver of the business.
“It’s kind-of a pride thing,” he said. “We’re proud to be part of feeding needy folks.”
Green says the backing of the food industry “has allowed [the U.S.] to maintain for 60 years a program that’s over a billion dollars. That is a very difficult thing to get a constituency for, to maintain that kind of support in a budget item where the recipients are all outside the United States.”
The proposal to hand out cash rather than food also draws fire from skeptics on Capitol Hill.
At last week’s hearing, Republican Congressman Jeff Duncan asked, "How is wiring cash to someone in a developing country a good idea instead of giving them wholesome, nutritious commodities grown by hard-working Americans?"
Many major aid groups cheered when the Obama administration proposed changes to Food for Peace in its latest budget proposal, but observers say those changes have not gained much traction.
The Senate passed small changes in its version of the five year, half-trillion-dollar Farm Bill governing agriculture subsidies and nutrition programs. Attention now turns to the House of Representatives as it debates its version of the Farm Bill.