There is growing evidence that in some countries, acute food crisis takes place against a backdrop of increasingly entrenched chronic food insecurity. Malawi, with its high population density, diminishing farm size, decreasing soil fertility, high cost of imported inputs such as fertiliser, weak service delivery systems and weak governance, is one such country. In settings such as these, the policy options are limited. This paper analyses the performance of a highly innovative intervention in Malawi – the Starter Pack programme – which provided free of charge small packs of improved maize and other seed together with appropriate fertiliser. The paper discusses how the objectives of this programme evolved (but remain complex), its cost-effectiveness, and complementary policy objectives that might be pursued. It considers the different expectations raised by Starter Pack with regard to agricultural growth, poverty reduction, social protection and food security. The paper argues that Starter Pack’s main strength is as a tool for combating chronic food insecurity, but there are also important synergies with social protection, growth and poverty reduction.