WASHINGTON — The U.S. government spends more than half of its international food aid budget transporting life-saving commodities through a tangled system of special interests and government bureaucracy – more than $9 billion in taxpayer dollars over the past decade, a Medill/USA Today investigation has found.

That makes it by far the most inefficient and expensive food assistance delivery system in the world, and one that delays or deprives sustenance to potentially millions of people who desperately need it—and in some cases, die without it, according to interviews with dozens of U.S. officials and experts, and a review of decades worth of government studies and documents.

Virtually every other aid-giving country and the United Nations—which helps coordinate them – use a flexible system in which critically needed grains, oils and other commodities are purchased as close to a crisis zone as possible. When it makes sense, they also give aid recipients cash transfers or vouchers instead of sacks of food. That saves money and precious time  in getting aid to those who need it, especially to the young, the elderly, the sick and families in crisis. Also of concern: children who can suffer permanent and crippling injuries even from moderate malnutrition.

But for 60 years, Congress has required that under Food for Peace, most American food aid must be bought from U.S. suppliers and transported thousands of miles on U.S.-flagged ships, even when cheaper, faster and better alternatives exist.

Critics, including top current and former U.S. Agency for International Development officials themselves, say the system’s required emphasis on helping for-profit American companies has significantly undermined the effectiveness of Food for Peace, often with tragic consequences.

“It was the case in Darfur in 2003-2004, it was the case in Ethiopia in 1985, and it was the case in Somalia in 1990, and the Rwandan genocide in 1994. People died waiting for the food to arrive because of the very long logistics chain that’s required to get the food all the way from the United States to the location,” said Andrew Natsios, former USAID administrator in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2006.

The congressional mandates mean that USAID, which administers Food for Peace, can take as long as seven months to get the food to its ultimate destination in often far-flung locales. That’s often twice as long as if the food was bought locally or regionally near a crisis zone, according to USAID data.

Those are some of the findings of a team of journalists from the Medill National Security Reporting Project, who spent three months interviewing dozens of participants at every step of the food aid chain, from farmers in the Midwest to policymakers in Washington, D.C. to aid workers and recipients in Burkina Faso and a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. They also reviewed scores of reports and analyzed previously unreleased internal USAID databases obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act.

It takes American food aid an average of 69 days just to be ordered, prepared, transported within the United States and loaded onto ships for international delivery, the USAID data shows. Several more months are usually spent shipping the food overseas and transporting it over land.

But delays aren’t the only problem.

The congressional mandates have made it so expensive and time-consuming for the United States to deliver food aid that it has significantly compromised the effectiveness of the entire program – at a time when it is needed more than ever, the investigation shows.

More than 842 million people worldwide are officially designated as malnourished, with several billion more as being chronically undernourished. And those numbers are expected to grow rapidly, thanks to climate change, conflict, overpopulation and other factors.

Since its inception in 1954, the U.S. food aid program has been a savior for world’s poor and disaster victims who need food. Food for Peace, as the centerpiece of that effort, and related programs provide roughly 50 percent of all food aid globally, at an average annual cost of $2 billion to U.S. taxpayers.

Yet over the past decade, even as its budget has declined only slightly (11 percent), the program’s success in delivering food aid has dropped precipitously, in large part due to rising transportation costs, according to USAID documents and interviews with food aid officials.

As a result:

  • In 2012, Food for Peace provided food aid to about 53 million people, or far fewer than half of the 123 million a decade earlier.
  • The amount of actual food sent through Food for Peace has dropped by 55 percent over that 10-year period, from 3.1 million metric tons a year to 1.4 million metric tons.
  • The number of countries receiving aid through Food for Peace has declined by almost half during the same amount of time, from 78 to 47, in part due to a shift in policy – and now excludes some of the most impoverished nations.

Top USAID officials, including Administrator Rajiv Shah, acknowledged those shortcomings in interviews and in responses to questions from Medill/USA TODAY. They said they are desperately fighting for the congressional authorities that they say they require to make the food aid program more responsive and efficient.

“In order to maintain U.S. leadership in humanitarian response, we need a food aid system that is flexible, effective, timely and maximizes taxpayer dollars,” Shah said in a statement. He estimated that even a modest series of reforms, such as an Obama administration proposal unveiled in early 2013, could feed an additional 2 to 4 million people a year on the same budget due to increased efficiencies and savings.

Some savings would come from USAID’s ability to buy food locally, where some key commodities like cereals can cost half as much as those purchased from U.S. suppliers, according to USAID data and interviews. Other savings would come from using vouchers and cash transfers that allow people to buy food where and when they want. Shah says such digital aid pipelines are more effective in providing food to recipients, especially in conflict zones where aid convoys are often blocked or robbed.

But many hundreds of millions more could be saved annually by cutting down on the cost of transporting the food halfway around the world, according to documents and interviews. Nelson Randall, a former senior U.S. food aid official, estimates that the supply chain often requires food aid to change hands 17 times.

“If you take and count the number of times a bag of peas or a bag of corn or a bag of corn soy blend is handled in this program manually, it’s a miracle that it gets to where it can be eaten at all,” said Randall, the former chief of the international procurement division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which buys the food USAID ships overseas as aid.

Of the total of $17.9 billion that USAID spent in the decade from 2003 to 2012, $9.2 billion of it went toward transportation costs, including shipping, handling and storage, or 22 percent more than the $7.4 billion spent on actual food, according to the data analysis and information provided by USAID. And more than a third of the transport costs – $3.3 billion – went just for ocean freight costs. That’s more than 16 percent of the entire Food for Peace budget.

USAID data indicates that the average price of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has nearly tripled in the past 12 years, going from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 in 2013. Those cost increases, coupled with rising food prices, have cut deeply into the amount of money that can be spent on actual food.

USAID officials say they don’t formulate how much such savings could come from eliminating transportation and logistics. Two private aid groups, Oxfam America and American Jewish World Service issued a report in 2012 saying that USAID could save $491 million a year, most of that on transport costs.

Compounding the problem

At least some of the rising transportation costs are the result of the congressionally mandated system, in which only a few dozen select shipping companies compete for lucrative contracts worth hundreds of millions a year, a kind of monopoly that drives up prices.

Transportation costs eat up an especially big chunk of the Food for Peace budget in Africa – about 70 percent — particularly in conflict-ridden countries like Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia that have long suffered from acute food insecurity, the data shows.

The problems stemming from the global transport of food aid can be even more acute when USAID is trying to react to the ever-growing number of rapid-onset crises that displace millions of people virtually overnight.

Some recent examples include helping refugees of the civil war in Syria and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. In those cases, there is no established pipeline, and delivering U.S. food aid can turn into a logistical – and expensive – nightmare, said one senior USAID logistics coordinator who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk publicly.

Support from those who benefit

The current system has many opponents, including every USAID administrator since the Reagan administration.

But it also has its champions, including many members of Congress who continually renew its funding. They say using U.S. suppliers and transport companies ensures the quality of the food, enriches it with the right nutrients and vitamins, and delivers it relatively quickly and efficiently. That’s especially the case now that USAID has spent more than $50 million on a global network of pre-positioning warehouses that store food closer to potential crisis zones.

What’s more, they say, it provides jobs for potentially thousands of Americans, including farmers, food processors, truckers, shipping companies, the Merchant Marine and aid workers who distribute the food overseas.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House transportation subcommittee that oversees maritime issues, acknowledged that Food for Peace aims to feed as many people as possible. But, he said, “There’s another piece of this and that is in America; it’s about American jobs and it’s about the distribution of that American food, first grown by American farmers all over this nation, whether it’s rice from California or wheat or corn from the Midwest. It’s also about the transportation system and the jobs that go with it.”

Last year, President Obama proposed using 45 percent of Food for Peace funds for locally purchased food, cash transfers and vouchers. A broad coalition of agribusiness, transportation interests and private volunteer organizations fought back, as they have in the past.

In an open letter, they said the growing, packaging and transporting of U.S. agricultural products not only provides jobs but helps bolster the U.S. shipping industry and the Merchant Marine. And though foreign aid is subject to the whims of Congress, they said, Food for Peace’s reliance on American suppliers and shippers has created “a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in alternative foreign aid programs.”

The groups also argued that the “From the American People” bags that serve as packaging for agricultural products dramatically increase goodwill toward the country. That “can help to address the root causes of (global) instability,” they said.

Other supporters say buying food locally or regionally is fraught with a whole different set of problems, including shortages, price gouging and the possibility of fraud.

A long and tangled history

By any measure, Food for Peace has been a huge success. Since its inception, the U.S. food aid program has helped feed a billion people in more than 150 countries, in partnership dozens of private transport, logistics and aid groups.

About 70 percent of its funding is for emergency food aid. The rest goes toward developing local agriculture and other long-term projects.

The problem, critics and USAID’s own officials say, is that the U.S. global food aid pipeline has remained largely unchanged since it was created in 1954. That’s when Congress passed a public law to help farmers offload their surplus food, open international markets for U.S. crops and improve U.S. foreign relations.

Within a decade, surpluses were mostly gone. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Food for Peace Act, shifting the focus of the distribution from surpluses to foods shipped largely for humanitarian reasons and giving the program its current name.

But the basic framework remains, including its forced reliance on American suppliers and U.S.-flagged shippers.

In 2009, Government Accountability Office, a longtime critic of Food for Peace, issued a report highlighting the potentially vast savings that a shift toward a more flexible system would bring.

The GAO, the independent investigative watchdog agency of Congress, studied 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It found that shipping food from the U.S. was not only more expensive, but took an average of 147 days to arrive, compared with 35 to 41 days for locally purchased food.

Government watchdogs have been particularly critical of the Cargo Preference Act, which requires that 50 percent of all food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged ships. Until two years ago, it was 75 percent.

The original purpose of the law was to protect the jobs of maritime workers and to retain a fleet of U.S. flagged vessels which could be used by the military if necessary. But critics, including Cornell economist Christopher B. Barrett, say it adds at least $160 million in annual costs to Food for Peace without providing any actual benefit.

The GAO said in a 1994 report that the act raised costs significantly, and did little to protect U.S. national security or help maintain a U.S. Merchant Marine.

Over the years, some aid groups like CARE have withdrawn from key aspects of Food for Peace, citing concerns over its lack of efficiency. Some of the biggest agricultural conglomerates have become critical as well, including food giant Cargill, one of the largest suppliers to the program.

On its website, Cargill once featured a quote from Roz Naylor, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. “In relief situations when there are food emergencies and the need for food aid, there is a critical need to rethink the structure of food aid programs,” Naylor said. “The United States, for example, should contribute cash for regional purchases and not just crop surpluses transported on U.S. flagged vessels, which usually arrive much too late and are much too expensive.”

But for the most part, USAID has been prevented from using such tools, especially for emergency aid deliveries. That’s because its hands are tied by restrictive laws and policies enacted by Congress, often at the behest of lobbyists for those who participate in the current system.

In several recent instances, powerful lawmakers who represent those interests have either killed or ignored reform legislation introduced in Congress.

After the Obama administration proposed a series of reforms last year, lawmakers weighed the successes and failures of Food for Peace at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. One of the expert witnesses was Natsios, the former USAID administrator and one of the most vocal advocates for reform.

“The question…is not whether the program has been successful in saving lives,” he said, “but whether it can be improved to make it more effective, more efficient, faster, so that more lives can be saved.”

USAID officials have won some concessions in recent years, including an annual pool of up to  $300 million, known as the Emergency Food Security Program. It has been used in Syria, the Philippines and Somalia, mostly to buy food locally and or to give cash or vouchers to victims.

But given how many disasters USAID is dealing with, that pool of money runs out quickly every year, forcing the agency to decide between typhoon victims in one country and famine sufferers in another.

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the deadliest and most destructive storms in recent history, struck the Philippines early last November. But if it had come at the beginning of the new fiscal year just a few weeks earlier, USAID may not have had the money for pay for the rapid initial response it had mounted because the fund was already spoken for, said Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg.

With future years shaping up to be even busier, USAID officials dread having to decide who gets potentially life-saving food, and who doesn’t.

“These are choices that we don’t have to make, that we shouldn’t have to make,” she said.