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SIU’s Brian Schoeneman testifies on importance of Food for Peace Program to House Agriculture Committee.

SIU’s Brian Schoeneman testifies on importance of Food for Peace Program to House Agriculture Committee.

Members of the House Agriculture Committee considering a prospective farm bill heard testimony from the U.S.-flag maritime industry why the Food for Peace Program should remain intact – and possibly strengthened – when a final measure is crafted.

“I can’t put it any plainer than this: food aid is essential to the American merchant marine. It is one of the largest sources of cargo for our fleet today,” stated Brian Schoeneman, legislative director for the MTD-affiliated Seafarers International Union. Schoeneman spoke for USA Maritime (composed of American vessel owners and operators, unions and trade associations) at the June 7 hearing.

In both oral and written testimony, Schoeneman laid out the industry’s case that Food for Peace (also known as PL-480) has been one of the nation’s most successful humanitarian aid programs since its implementation more than 60 years ago. (The MTD continues to be a strong supporter of the program, which takes American-grown grain and food loaded aboard U.S.-flag vessels for delivery around the world to those in hunger or distress.)

While pointing out that America’s mariners have answered the nation’s call going back to 1775, he noted so-called reformers have been urging the federal government to do away with the U.S.-grown, U.S.-flag delivery system and simply provide cash directly to non-governmental organizations or the foreign entities to purchase locally what is needed.

“Claiming the need for added flexibility and efficiency, these so-called ‘food aid reformers’ have twisted these programs,” Schoeneman stated. “Not so long ago, the single biggest cost in the PL-480 Food for Peace Program was food. Today, according to the [Government Accountability Office], food and ocean transport represent slightly more than one-third of the total outlays for PL-480.

“Added flexibility has resulted in less food aid and more cash giveaways, food vouchers and foreign commodity purchases, all using money intended for buying and shipping American food. This is wrong, and Congress should put an end to it,” he added.

Schoeneman recalled for the legislators President Trump’s inauguration call to buy and hire American. He said Food for Peace does just that.

Congress changed in 2012 the percentage of food aid that should be carried aboard U.S.-flag vessels from 75 to 50 percent. Since then, the American merchant fleet has lost 25 vessels, representing “the equivalent of nearly 1,000 mariner jobs lost.”

“America depends on its merchant marine to support our warfighters overseas, and without a merchant marine, we would be held hostage to foreign interests in any future conflict,” Schoeneman warned. “The same can be said for our foreign commerce.

“Our merchant mariners are a vital national and economic security asset and food aid and cargo preference help keep those mariners working in peace time so that that are available in war time. It’s that simple,” he continued.

Schoeneman reiterated the strong alliance American farmers and mariners have had to make PL-480 the success it has been. To further cut back or even eliminate Food for Peace “would be a disaster for America’s farmers and mariners and for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hungry people around the world.”

The hearing was called to order by U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) who opened by saying, “Americans are big-hearted people and elimination food aid programs goes against our country’s longstanding philanthropic commitment. For the past 60 years, U.S. foreign assistance has benefited millions around the world in the form of rice, wheat and other U.S.-grown commodities. Unlike cash-based assistance, sending commodities overseas through international food aid programs not only benefits recipients, but also contributes to jobs in the U.S. agricultural, manufacturing and maritime sectors, underscoring the role these programs play in an ‘America-first’ approach to helping others. I continue to believe there is an important place for these programs.”