A GAO report published last month investigating international food assistance concluded that U.S. food aid shipped to 10 different Sub-Saharan African countries costs 34 percent more than food bought locally and regionally by the World Food Program.
There is a major push by international aid groups and analysts for reform in the laws, something that Barrett says members of Congress who have agricultural constituent interests are resistant to adopt.
"Not many congressmen like giving up domain," said Barrett. "Congressional committees that are dealing with agriculture and shipping don't have the same interests or backgrounds as the foreign affairs and foreign relations committees do. They're viewing it in the broader context of farming, not in terms of development."
Rebecca Bratter, the policy director for U.S. Wheat Associates, says that current policy is not about benefitting the U.S. agribusiness, but making sure the world's hungry are fed in the safest, most effective known method.
"We are feeding people in emergency situations. Nobody donates more food than the United States," said Bratter. "Countries should become commercial markets and not donation markets, but that can't happen in a year."
Some reform to the law has already occurred. In last year's farm bill the Bush administration pushed for more flexibility on aid assistance restrictions, citing the global food crisis as making the changes necessary. After some debate, Congress allowed $60 million over the next four years to be spent on local and regional food purchases..
The Obama administration has also expressed interest in having more flexibility in the food aid policy. A spokeswoman for USAID told ABC News in a statement, "The administration requested $300 million in International Disaster Assistance for an 'emergency food security fund.' This fund expands the U.S. government humanitarian tool-kit by enabling us to procure food locally or regionally, or to provide vouchers for food available in local markets, when our own food assistance is too far away, or when there is ample food in the market, but crisis affected households cannot afford to buy it."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is leading the administration's $3.5 billion three-year initiative for global food security, has repeatedly said helping poor nations develop their own agriculture sector is a priority for the administration. Two weeks ago agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that he wants to see the current policy develop into more of a partnership between the U.S. agricultural sector and the agricultural needs of developing countries.
But Bratter warns that a total switch from in-kind food donations to cash for local buying could produce a backlash in food aid funding.
"Agricultural interests fight for these programs every year on the Hill, but if it's just cash then that removes agricultural interests from the equation," said Bratter. "It could have a negative effect in future support for the programs. "
Judith Schuler, the WFP spokeswoman for Ethiopia, concedes that change cannot happen overnight.
"We do have to work on long-term strategies, but we have a productive safety net program covering the needs of 7.5 million people, which provides programs like school feeding," Schuler told ABC News. "At the moment though, 6.2 million people are food insecure. They need immediate assistance."