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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As Typhoon Haiyan bore down on the Philippines, Congress was already debating the best way to send food aid to countries in need. The U.S. is the world's biggest source of humanitarian food aid. Some argue the U.S. should send more cash to help buy food, instead of ships loaded with rice or grain grown in America. And they say the disaster in the Philippines is a good example of why.

NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles, joined us for more. Good morning.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the situation there in the Philippines. How much aid is on its way?

CHARLES: So the first shipments that came in was airlifted in, and this was what they call high-energy biscuits. Think of it as kind of energy bars. But a lot more is on its way, often in the form of rice, the Philippines' major staple.

The World Food Program coordinates all this. They're putting out an appeal for $88 million worth of food. People are assuming the U.S. will end up providing maybe a quarter or a third of that total.

MONTAGNE: And how does it work, exactly? Does the U.S. send ships loaded with rice?

CHARLES: It's a combination of things. There are ships, actually, on there way from Sri Lanka to the Philippines right now. They're carrying Rice that was grown here in the U.S. that was pre-positioned in warehouses in Sri Lanka.

But the bigger part of the total is in cash. They're using that cash to buy food, like rice, in the Philippines or neighboring countries, and send it to where it's needed.

MONTAGNE: But that's not typical, right? I mean, doesn't most U.S. emergency aid - and also, non-emergency aid - doesn't that get shipped directly from the U.S.?

CHARLES: That's exactly right, in general. And this is where we get into this huge debate over how the program works and whether it could work better.

So, the situation in the Philippines is exactly where it makes sense to send cash, not shiploads of food. First of all, it gets there faster. You can get food more quickly. But second, there's a lot of rice available for sale in the Philippines and relatively close by, like, in Thailand.

But here's the thing: There's a limit on how much food aid the U.S. is actually allowed to send as cash. Right now, it's about $300 million, which is about 20 percent of total U.S. food aid.

The Obama administration wants to raise that limit a lot, so that it can react to situations like the Philippines. But also, in Syria, the U.S. is providing a lot of food aid to Syria as cash, because they can't send food directly to Syria. And Syria, in fact, used up a lot of the cash that the U.S. has available to buy food.

MONTAGNE: So how did it happen that there is this cash left over for the Philippines?

CHARLES: Well, one lucky thing for the Philippines was it's near the start of the U.S. fiscal year, so they had a fresh pot of cash to draw on. There's probably plenty available for what is required for the Philippines. But that leaves less for later in the year for similar disasters.

MONTAGNE: And, Dan, what are the chances that Congress will change the rules and make more food aid available as cash, as some propose that it do?

CHARLES: There are not going to be any drastic changes right away. The rules for this program are set in the Farm Bill, which is actually being negotiated on Capitol Hill, as we speak. And there was a push to change the rules and make more food ale available as cash, but it ran into strong political opposition. There was a lobbying effort by people who actually earn money from the program as it stands - farmers and also the shippers who send the food aid abroad.

The House kept the program exactly as it has been. The Senate increased the amount of cash for food aid by about $45 million each year.

The two sides are now negotiating. The people who support the Senate version are saying, look at the Philippines. This is why we need to provide more cash, to buy food closer to where it's needed.

MONTAGNE: NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles, thanks very much.

CHARLES: Thank you.

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