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We heard elsewhere in today's program about the challenge of distributing food to those fleeing the violence in Syria. As aid groups continue their work there, here in Washington a heated debate has erupted about how the United States contributes food aid around the world. The Obama administration is widely expected to propose a big shakeup in the rules.

NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: America's food aid program is both generous and selfish. The U.S. spends roughly a billion and half dollars every year to send food abroad. That's more than any other country. But on the selfish side, there are rules to make sure that much of the food aid budget goes into American pockets. Most of the wheat, corn meal, or vegetable oil has to be bought from U.S. farmers, processed here and delivered by U.S. shippers. That can take many months.

Andrew Natsios, who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development for President George W. Bush, says the results can be tragic.

ANDREW NATSIOS: I've run these operations, and I know food aid often gets there after everyone is dead.

CHARLES: What's even more tragic: Sometimes you could have bought that food much closer to the disaster.

NATSIOS: And that's where this came from - the field people telling me can't we reform this program?

CHARLES: Almost a decade ago, Natsios went to a big annual food aid conference in Kansas City and he announced the Bush administration wanted to change the rules so that up to a quarter of the food aid budget would go out as cash, and humanitarian groups could use it to buy food wherever they needed it. This did not go over well.

The room was filled with farm groups and shipping companies and others who make money from traditional food aid.

NATSIOS: I was almost physically assaulted. One of my security guys had to physically stop one of the lobbyists from one of the law firms in the Midwest.

CHARLES: The proposal took a beating in Congress too. Natsios and the Bush administration eventually were able to set up two pilot programs which buy food closer to where it's needed. Those programs now account for about a quarter of U.S. food aid. And according to independent reviews they're working pretty well. Now apparently the Obama administration wants to go even further.

Gawain Kripke, the policy director for Oxfam America, says it's an open secret - the White House is talking about completely eliminate the existing food aid program. Instead, a new program would provide cash to buy food aid when and where it's needed most.

GAWAIN KRIPKE: So it looks like it'll be more ambitious than what President Bush ever proposed and more meaningful therefore.

CHARLES: Kripke says this could be a really good thing.

KRIPKE: We think the U.S. food aid program is quite broken and needs to be improved. It's really wasteful for taxpayers and it doesn't help nearly as many poor people as it could.

CHARLES: But there's already a wave of protest against the potential change. And leading the charge are some other humanitarian groups. One is International Relief and Development, IRD. Jeffrey Grieco is IRD's chief of public and government affairs.

JEFFREY GRIECO: We can't figure out what's going on.

CHARLES: These groups are upset and scared for a couple of reasons. Some are worried that tampering with traditional food aid will lead to less funding, because the agricultural lobby won't support the program anymore. There's another reason that's less well-known. Some humanitarian groups, like IRD, rely on one part of the food aid budget as a source of funding for their own work in Third World countries.

It works like this: Not all food aid goes to places suffering from famine. There's also non-emergency food aid. When that food arrives, in a wide variety of countries it's turned over to non-profit groups like IRD. The idea is these groups can then sell the food and use the proceeds to pay for projects that help farmers or improve people's nutrition.

Jeffrey Grieco says these programs do a lot of good.

GRIECO: The reason why these programs are important to us is because these programs are working on the ground right now. And we're able to save lives.

CHARLES: Critics call it a horribly inefficient way to pay for local development projects. But Grieco says it's at least reliable. All these projects, by law, have to be devoted to fighting hunger. The new cash program, he says, might end up paying for lots of other things.

GRIECO: If you remove the conditionalities about how money should be spent, specifically, that money may never be available for those crises at a key time when we need it.

CHARLES: Some of these fears are still at the moment fears of the unknown. The Obama administration is expected to release the actual details of its food aid proposal next week.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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