Charity should be about helping people that need help. Most of the time, that’s pretty straightforward. But in the arena of food aid, the federal government finds it a little hard to grasp.

Most US food aid must be US grown and shipped on US-flagged vessels. These rules greatly diminish the US Agency for International Development’s effective food aid budget, as US food is often much more expensive than food closer to famine areas and shipping food halfway around the world doesn’t come cheap. USAID can only deliver half the food it otherwise could if it was free to buy food close to where it was needed. The beneficiaries of this absurdly inefficient scheme are, of course, massive domestic agricultural and shipping corporations, some of whom take in tens of millions in food aid dollars every year. One might be forgiven thinking that feeding hungry people ranks a distant second to corporate largess in the American food aid program.

The rules have an additional, even more damaging consequence besides reducing the quantity of food to those who need it. Food is often available near famine areas, and farmers in or near such areas depend on the purchase of that food for their continued livelihoods. A sudden influx of free foreign food can send local and regional food prices through the floor, wiping out small farmers and retarding the agricultural development (for example, after the earthquake in Hurricane). It doesn’t take much to figure out that weak agricultural development in poor areas is a recipe for another famine the moment adversity sets in. Such dramatic distortion of agricultural markets can be avoided by purchasing from those local and regional farmers instead of undercutting them, thereby both supporting farmers and delivering food quickly and cheaply to famine areas.

None of this is news. In fact, many other countries have already changed course; the US is the laggard among developed country food donors, unable to escape an archaic set of rules favoring corporate interests who do not need additional favor. Others, Canada and the European Union among them, have untied their food aid from business accounts and instead support local and regional procurement. The Farm Bill, a new version of which may pass before the end of the year (the previous version expired on Sept. 30th), must make a similar shift to improve efficiency and effectiveness of American food aid.

One last thought: the purchasing and shipping rules are short-term thinking of the worst form, and not only in their inefficiency and price-distorting effects. An America seeking friends and allies in a hostile world should give help freely to those in need, rather than jealousy guard its fortune behind the gates of corporate greed. “We can help,” the America of today says, “we can heal your sick and feed your hungry. But only if you acquiesce to our methods and accept less so that we may profit from your misfortune.” That self-serving message in the end doesn’t even serve the self, for a friend stingy in times of need earns little loyalty. If America wishes stronger and more enduring ties to its partners, when disaster strikes, it should hold an open hand.