The U.S. created its food aid program more than 50 years ago in part to alleviate surpluses in agricultural commodities. Surpluses aren't a persistent issue today, but world hunger has become a more acute problem.
The challenge for governments, aid agencies and recipient countries is to create a collaborative food aid system that accommodates both the needs of the U.S. agriculture industry and growing food insecurity among a mushrooming population.
Almost 10 million people will be served by U.S. food assistance programs this year, according to Michael Scuse, an acting undersecretary of food and agriculture for the USDA.
Scuse said two of the largest programs, known as Food for Progress and The McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program, are key to creating food security for a world population expected to top 9 billion people by 2050.
But administering the programs is challenging, and critics say politics too often plays a part in how food is delivered.
One international aid agency, Oxfam America, tried to illustrate the problem with a visualization at its booth in an exhibit hall.
Two actors donned a donkey and elephant’s head - illustrating that neither Democrats nor Republicans are at fault. They sat across from one another over a game table, playing a simulated game of Jenga with cobs of corn.
Oxfam’s Director of Regional Advocacy, Jim French, says programs that require the United States to sell commodities overseas to fund development projects are sometimes ineffective and more costly than simply donating cash to needy communities.
"Maybe taking that food aid money and instead of buying (U.S.) commodities and reselling the commodities ...(it) might be better simply to take that money, allow it to be dispersed to agencies doing development projects," he said.
Laws governing procurement and freight also can add to the cost of U. S. food aid. Politicians debating the 2012 Farm Bill are looking at some of the laws, including those that require U.S commodities to be shipped on U.S. vessels.
Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw with Catholic Relief Services says government programs often end up losing money and that they often don't make sense.
"Why would you take food from the U.S. all the way across the world somewhere and sell it on a market over there? Very often you’re selling it at less than what it costs to get it there."
Critics also claim selling U.S commodities overseas can have the effect of crashing in local markets, hurting the very people they are meant to help.
But Patricia Sheik, Deputy Administrator of the Foreign Agriculture Service, says the government is diligent about assessing local markets. But she says the problems are complex, and food aid programs need flexibility.
For example, she says providing food aid in exchange for work is sometimes the best way to use U.S. programs. Depending on the situation, selling U.S. foods to development agencies is the best course, while sometimes, Sheik said, donating food outright is what is needed.
The U.S. agriculture industry is part of a global market. With a booming global population, the industry will need to continue to look for innovative solutions to the challenges of feeding the world.