Rice Campaign Causes Handling Problems for USPS

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"Rice for Peace," a nationwide mailing campaign urging peace with Iraq, created unintended problems for U.S. Postal Service personnel and machinery.


The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Boulder, CO, sent e-mails last month to more than 200 peace organizations suggesting that their members send a half-cup of uncooked rice to the White House with a note requesting that the United States not attack Iraq but instead send food.


The peace and justice center estimates 250 to 500 packages daily are being sent to the White House. It said the rice takes up space and requires time and effort to handle, giving it more effect than just a letter.


But the campaign made an impact at postal facilities as some of the rice ended up on the floors of processing facilities because envelopes were ripping open as they passed through sorting machines.


"The rice was ending up on the floor and getting caught in the machinery," said John Dunbar, postmaster at Glenwood Springs Post Office in Colorado.


The peace and justice center from the start of the campaign took steps to ensure the rice is properly packaged. Its Web site, riceforpeace.org, shows rice enclosed in a sealed plastic sandwich-type bag and also shows a bubble-pack padded envelope for the outer packaging.


Still, the Web site never explicitly said to use a specific type of envelope. In addition, the pastor at Boulder Mennonite Church sent an e-mail alert about the program to the National Mennonite e-mail list that said people could use a paper envelope to mail the rice, according to a spokesperson for the center.


A postal inspector called the center in late January, and that "while he knew we were really trying to give explicit instructions on the packaging on our Web site, he said that [the USPS] was having a lot of problems with the packages," said Betty Ball, nonviolence education coordinator at the center.


The inspector also said that some postal employees were concerned about the rice being connected to a bioterrorism attack. The inspector sent a memo to every post office in the United States alerting them to the issue.


After speaking with the inspector, the peace and justice center put a packaging alert on its Web site that offered explicit directions about how to deal with the mailings. The alert said, "Rice MUST be packaged in a strong padded envelope or sturdy box."


It then explained that post offices had received many packages sent in plain envelopes, which have broken open in mail-handling machinery and sometimes damaged equipment.


The alert said that it is "absolutely not our intention to create a problem for the postal service or to put U.S. postal workers in a position of having to worry about their personal safety ... Rice should be in a "burped" plastic bag (no extra air) and placed inside a padded envelope or box."


The problem is lessening, Dunbar said, and there was no permanent damage to service machinery.


The Rice for Peace campaign is based on a similar anti-war mailing from the 1950s, when President Eisenhower was contemplating using nuclear weapons on two Chinese islands. At that time, tens of thousands of people sent small bags of grain to the president, urging him to feed the Chinese and not attack them.


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