Hungry people in Africa soon will receive a late Thanksgiving gift of wheat from the land of plenty.

A converted oil tanker loaded with a $10 million cargo of U.S. wheat started its five-week voyage from Portland to the Red Sea this week, carrying more than 57,000 metric tons of wheat intended for distribution in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen.

It was the first U.S. food aid shipment out of the Columbia-Snake River system in a month but certainly not the first this year. Portland leads the nation in wheat exports, and at least one of every four bushels of export wheat goes to food aid or government assistance programs.

Other shipments this year have sent Northwest wheat to Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.

Jonathan Schlueter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain & Feed Association in Portland, said the amount, 2.1 million bushels, is enough to make more than 90 million loaves of bread.

For this trip, the Prudhoe Bay docked at elevators in both Vancouver, Wash., and Portland and loaded more than 44,000 metric tons of Northwest-grown soft white wheat, plus 14,000 metric tons of hard red winter wheat. (A metric ton is 2,200 pounds.) Soft white wheat is favored for the unleavened flat breads that are a staple in many African and Asian countries; hard wheat is used for leavened (yeast) bread.

The chairwoman of the Oregon Wheat Commission, who visited the United Harvest elevator at the Port of Vancouver while the Prudhoe Bay was loading, said it's notable that 'the U.S. Department of Agriculture ships grain to the country that is most appropriate for their use.'

The American-flagged grain carrier, owned by an Iowan, was converted to its current use two years ago. It regularly carries food aid shipments from the West Coast to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Built 31 years ago, the Prudhoe Bay initially carried crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska to West Coast refineries, but because it was single-hulled, eventually was prohibited from carrying petroleum in U.S. waters. Now, the ship carries food aid under contract to the U.S. government.

More than 17,000 metric tons of wheat will go to Eritrea, a tiny nation with a population of 3.3 million, 2.3 million of whom are considered to be at immediate risk of malnutrition or starvation.

In Eritrea, it will be used for a Food for Education program administered by Portland-based Mercy Corps International. The wheat, milled in Eritrea into flour, will be baked into biscuits and distributed to children at more than 100 schools.

Putting the bakery into operation carried an added benefit Ñ it created about 150 jobs for residents of a nation devastated by famine and drought, said Mercy Corps spokesman Rob Zeaske.

Zeaske said the agency enlists the aid of parent-teacher organizations to see that the food reaches its intended recipients. Because the crackerlike biscuits are distributed at schools, they're an incentive to attendance. They can constitute the majority of the food some children get in a day, he said.

'They certainly need it,' said Zeaske, who visited Eritrea in November. 'Relative to other African countries I have been in, it's a very desolate place. The drought has been severe.'

In addition to Mercy Corps and the Agriculture Department, CARE International is involved in what also is called the Education Improvement Project.

Contact Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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