Duluth, a conduit for overseas food aid, looks to keep up the flow. Food for Peace links Lake Superior longshoremen with the hungry in Africa

The people who work along the docks of Lake Superior know that there is more to United States food aid than feeding hungry people abroad. ``We feed the world, but we are also feeding ourselves,'' says the Rev. Norbert Mokros, a former commissioner of the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth and pastor of a center for seafarers.

Situated at the western tip of the Great Lakes, Duluth and its neighbor, Superior, Wis., are a shipping point for food given away or purchased with low-interest loans under the US foreign aid program.

This year Food for Peace, as it is called, accounts for about 90 percent of the export shipping done by the publicly owned Seaway Port Authority and the privately owned Meehan Seaway Service in Superior. These are the only two local operations that can handle the processed bagged food sent to the needy third-world countries.

Food for Peace is only one-twentieth of the port's total food export business, which is predominantly bulk cargo sold by General Mills and other large dealers. But food aid takes on disproportionate importance for longshoremen who make their livings all along the waterfront. Longshoremen can quickly pour unprocessed grain onto ships. They must load bagged food by hand.

During the last seven years, Food for Peace shipments accounted for about one-half of the working hours put in by longshoremen, according to port authority calculations.

Every ton of food aid pumps $85 into the local economy, almost three times as much as a ton of bulk grain, port authority director Davis Helberg says.

Not surprisingly, officials like Mr. Helberg are deeply troubled about slippage in Duluth's share of this cargo, which has already begun to happen as a result of competing interests wanting to profit from the food aid business. Food for Peace, observes the Rev. Mr. Mokros, is a ``hot political item.''

From the beginning, self-interest has been a major element in Public Law 480 (PL 480), the legislation that created the Food for Peace program in 1954. By helping poor countries meet short-term food needs, Congress saw a way of disposing of surplus agricultural products and acquiring long-term customers.

PL 480, administered by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has provided an effective outlet for surpluses, at its high point in the early 1960s accounting for 25 percent of the dollar value of US farm exports. Today Food for Peace amounts to less than 5 percent of total agricultural exports but has been responsible in recent years for more than 60 percent of the exports of wheat flour and nonfat dry milk, two of the 100 commodities suppo rted by the program.

Though recipient countries in the third world can lean on food assistance to avoid steps to increase their own domestic food production, ``PL 480's batting average is very high'' as a development tool, says John W. Mellor, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. ``Countries that are doing well in domestic agriculture production now were major recipients of food aid.''

Third-world economic growth has made developing countries good markets for US farm exports. The 16 developing countries with the highest growth rates in their basic food staples in the 1960s and '70s doubled their imports in those same products, Dr. Mellor says.

In response to the African famine, Congress increased PL 480 last year by more than 30 percent, to $2.2 billion. About half was sent as outright donations.

Loans to help developing countries purchase US grain carry interest rates of 3 to 7 percent and repayment periods of up to 40 years for the poorest nations.

Duluth and Superior began shipping Food for Peace commodities when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened Great Lakes ports to world commerce in 1959. The most important commodities for the ports are bulgur wheat, which is processed in Crete, Neb., about 550 miles away, and nonfat dry milk produced in the upper Midwest, says Alan T. Johnson, director of international marketing at the port authority.

Even with increases in PL 480, Food for Peace shipments out of Duluth-Superior have declined for three straight years.

Port officials attribute this to a variety of factors, including cargo preference rules.

Under federal regulations written by Congress, at least 50 percent of all shipments of government-generated exports, including Food for Peace, have had to travel on US flagships.

Legislation in the farm bill, which is to be signed by President Reagan today, increases US shippers' share of PL 480 to 75 percent over the next three years.

With the decline of the shipping industry, only one US oceangoing line still travels regularly into the Great Lakes, thus reducing Duluth's prospects of handling food aid.

Duluthians feel they have a right to handle a larger share of Food for Peace exports. ``If you are paying taxes, you are entitled to PL 480 cargoes,'' says Peter Harris, manager of Meehan Seaway Service.

Just as shippers get a preference to help them stay in business, ``there should be an exclusion for the Great Lakes,'' say Robert Picard, president of the Superior International Longshoreman Association. ``As a result of them protecting their jobs, we're losing ours.''

Another problem is competition. ``PL 480 used to be gravy for ports like Houston and New Orleans,'' says Helberg. Now, with agricultural exports declining as a result of third-world economic troubles, ``They have been going after it with both feet.''

To make itself more competitive, Meehan Seaway Service added grain storage facilities this year and, with government financial help, will shortly start dredging a deeper slip that will make it possible for ships to take on more cargo.

With help from the city, the Duluth Port Authority has purchased equipment for bagging grain. Although Helberg does not think the equipment will be used exclusively for food aid, its first job was to bag food purchased with $350,000 in private Minnesota donations. The food left Duluth Dec. 14 for East Africa.

Also on the vessel were 800 bags of wood briquettes made by a Minnesota company out of sawdust and wood chips. World Vision, an international relief organization, will test the wood as fuel in Sudan. The port authority, a marketing firm, and the shipping line are underwriting the cost of the shipment.

Use of such fuels could be an answer to deforestation in developing countries and an outlet for surplus timber in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Helberg says.

With a successful test, he hopes USAID and other development institutions will purchase the briquettes for shipment to the third world. The financing arrangements, he believes, could be the same as for PL 480.

Fourth in a monthly series tracing US business and economic ties to the developing world. Next month: The US service industry moves offshore.

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