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Originally published June 3, 2014 at 4:58 PM | Page modified June 4, 2014 at 12:01 PM

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Guest: Protect U.S. food aid from the shipping industry

Congress is considering a bill that needlessly increases shipping costs for U.S. food aid, writes guest columnist Rick Steves.

Special to The Times

Rick Steves

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AMERICANS are both smart business people and generous when it comes to caring for the hungry. And when Americans vote to provide food aid to help feed the world’s 800 million hungry people, they want that money spent smartly. That is the will of the American public, and our will is in danger of being overridden by legislation that needlessly increases transportation expenses for food aid in order to pad the profits of the shipping companies that transport it.

I have no problem with shipping companies finding ways to bump up their profits — unless that money comes out of aid destined to help feed destitute people in hungry lands.

As you can imagine, the shipping industry has more lobby power than the hungry. The result: Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a provision, hidden inside Coast Guard reauthorization bill H.R. 4005, with no public input, as an attempt to pull a fast one on the taxpaying public.

The provision mandates that 75 percent — an increase from 50 percent — of U.S. food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged cargo ships. While this is a nice piece of business for America’s shippers, the increase would raise expenses by $75 million every year — ultimately impacting at least 2 million hungry people around the world. This is food given to bring relief in times of an emergency, such as a natural disaster or conflict.

Experts on hunger issues understand the importance of stopping this bill. This provision is opposed by the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as a host of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services, Bread for the World and Mercy Corps.

Having passed the House, the cargo preference provision is heading to the Senate Commerce Committee for consideration. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has a heart for the poor, is a key player on this committee. She’ll be lobbied very hard by the maritime industry on this. We, Washington state voters, need to collectively speak up and give her the moral courage to stand for the hungry rather than the shippers.

These days it’s hard enough to get aid for the world’s 800 million hungry. However, both Republicans and Democrats have agreed to find ways to make our U.S. food-aid programs more efficient. In this political environment, if both sides of the aisle can agree to a plan to help make our federal government work better, we must not allow giant shipping conglomerates to take a bite out of that. The U.S. needs to improve food assistance. The proposed changes would do exactly the opposite.

I care about this issue in part because of my work as a travel writer. Having spent a third of my adult life overseas, it’s clear to me: While we are a compassionate society, we can be oblivious to the consequences that some of our choices have on struggling people. Sure, we have our economic challenges. But 90 percent of humanity would love to have our crisis. Half of humanity is struggling to survive on $2 a day. When you travel, you understand that’s a real crisis.

I believe that, even if motivated only by greed and national security interests, if U.S. citizens know what’s good for ourselves and our country, we don’t want to be extremely wealthy in a world with lots of hunger. U.S. food aid, which saves millions of lives each year, is vital in combating this challenge. And making every food-aid dollar count is a responsible use of taxpayer money, a moral imperative and in America’s interest.

This issue may seem like wonkish trivia. But it has a real impact on desperate people. Including this provision to increase restrictions on how our food aid is shipped would be a major setback to the world’s hungry, as well as to the efficiency of America’s food-aid programs.

Please encourage Sen. Cantwell to heed the will of the American people rather than the lobbying of shipping companies. We need to reject any actions that increase transportation costs for food aid and prevent hungry people around the world from receiving the assistance that caring Americans want to give.

Rick Steves is an Edmonds-based travel writer and longtime member of Bread for the World.

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