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Anti-hunger programs loom large in McGovern legacy

Former Sen. George McGovern was the first director of the U.S. Food for Peace Program and was instrumental in the foundation of the World Food Program in 1963. (WFP/Tom Haskell)

Sen. George McGovern, 1922-2012

Sen. George McGovern, 1922-2012


Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., who died Sunday in a Sioux Falls, S.D., hospice at age 90, may go down in history for his anti-war activism and the presidential campaign he lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972, but his most enduring legacy is likely to be the domestic and international anti-hunger programs he helped established while also aiding the nation’s farmers.

As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations food agencies David Lane noted Sunday, McGovern “was raised in a South Dakota farm community during the Depression and was a decorated bomber pilot in Italy during World War II. The poverty he viewed as a child and in wartime Italy shaped his lifetime commitments to promoting peace and feeding the world.”

Marshall Matz, a Washington attorney, was a legal aide lawyer in South Dakota when McGovern brought him to Washington to work for the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs and the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“George McGovern’s legacy on food and nutrition is without equal and will be felt all over the world for many years to come,” Matz said.

From the day he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1957, McGovern was an advocate for the food stamp program and the national school lunch program, and helped establish the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC.

As head of Food for Peace in the administration of John F. Kennedy, during his Senate career from 1963 to 1980, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome during the Clinton administration, and as a private citizen, McGovern campaigned for food aid to the world’s hungry and aid to help improve agriculture in developing countries.

George McGovern

(Undated) George McGovern
Today he is best known for the McGovern-Dole International School Nutrition Program, which began as a pilot school lunch program when he was ambassador in Rome and later, with the assistance of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., became an established part of the farm program.

In a Washington Post column Sunday, Dole noted their bipartisan co-operation in fighting hunger and said McGovern was “a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.”

(For details on the development of the McGovern-Dole program, see story below.)

As his Wikipedia entry shows, McGovern’s interest in programs to make sure poor people could get food was good politics in his early years in office, when agricultural surpluses held down commodity prices.

During his first term in Congress, McGovern was a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor, but was a staunch supporter of higher commodity prices, farm price supports, grain storage programs, beef import controls, and rural development programs.

After re-election in 1958, McGovern won a seat on the House Agriculture Committee and from that position became an advocate for a more generous food stamp program and worked with Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., to give the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act of 1954 a greater emphasis on feeding the hungry around the world.


1961: President John F. Kennedy, left, with George McGovern, who Kennedy appointed the first director of the Food for Peace program. (White House)

After he lost a race against South Dakota Republican Sen. Karl Mundt in 1960, Kennedy named him head of the Food for Peace program, which was established within the executive office of the president rather than at the Agriculture Department or the State Department.

Within a year, Food for Peace was operating in a dozen countries and feeding 10 million more people with American surplus food than it had been a year before. In late 1961, McGovern participated in the creation of the U.N. World Food Program, which was set up to distribute surplus food.

In 1962, after visiting India and seeing that one in five Indian school children was being fed from the Food for Peace program, McGovern announced he would run for the Senate and resigned his Food for Peace position. Kennedy said that under McGovern, Food for Peace had “become a vital force in the world,” improving living conditions and economies of allies and creating “a powerful barrier to the spread of Communism.”

Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Food for Peace had been “the greatest unseen weapon of Kennedy's third-world policy.”

When McGovern joined the Senate in 1963, he won assignments on what was then called the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee and the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. He continued his support for higher farm prices, full parity, controls on beef importation and feed grains diversion.

McGovern considered Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, a former Minnesota Democratic governor, too conservative on farm programs and in 1966 sponsored a resolution criticizing Freeman.

In his first speech on the Senate floor in March 1963, McGovern praised Kennedy's Alliance for Progress foreign aid program for Latin America, but criticized the administration’s policy toward Cuba. In 1964 McGovern published his first book, “War Against Want: America’s Food for Peace Program,” and won an increase in appropriations for the program he had run.

In 1968, following a field trip by Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., and Joseph Clark, D-Pa., to study hunger in Mississippi and a number of journalistic inquiries into hunger around the country, the Senate passed McGovern’s resolution to establish the Senate Select Committee on Hunger and Human Needs.

Select committees did not have the power to send legislation to the floor, but with McGovern as chairman the committee raised public consciousness about the issue of hunger. McGovern took the committee to Immokalee, Fla., to highlight the problems of migrant farm workers.

Also, in 1968, as Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center noted today, McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, watched a CBS television documentary in which an African-American child stood in the back of a cafeteria while other students ate their lunch.

After the child told newsman Charles Kuralt that he did not have the money to buy a school lunch and felt ashamed, McGovern turned to his wife and said, “We are the ones who should be ashamed, and I am going to do something to change this.” McGovern and Dole secured legislation that established national eligibility guidelines for school meal programs, and beginning in 1970 provided free and reduced price lunches to children from lower income families.

The committee was also instrumental in organizing the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health held in 1969.

Congress had established the food stamp program in 1964 as a way to improve nutrition among low-income households, to stabilize the farm economy and ensure passage of farm bills, which had become more difficult to pass as congressional districts became concentrated in cities and suburbs.

But the initial food program was limited and required participants to buy the food stamps. In the 1970s at the urging of McGovern and other senators, Congress established eliminated the purchase requirement and established national standards of eligibility.

George McGovern, 1972

1972: Candidate for president

The Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs slowed down when McGovern ran for president in 1972, but after McGovern’s re-election to the Senate in 1974, it expanded its scope to study nutrition policy to combat health problems.

In 1977 the committee issued a report titled “Dietary Goals for the United States,” which became known as the McGovern Report. Its recommendations that Americans eat less fat, less cholesterol, less refined and processed sugars and more complex carbohydrates and fibers were controversial with the cattle, dairy, egg and sugar industries, but also led to regular Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports issued by the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

In 1977, despite McGovern’s and Dole’s efforts, the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs was the victim of an effort to reform the Senate committee system, and subsumed as a subcommittee on nutrition under the renamed Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Several nutrition historians have said that the committee brought credibility to the hunger issue and got Americans to think about their diet.

In the 1980 Republican landslide led by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, McGovern was defeated in his Senate re-election bid. He busied himself as a university professor, lecturer and in business, but returned to public service in 1998 when President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to the U.N. food agencies in Rome. In that position McGovern observed that children around the world needed school lunch and encouraged the Clinton administration to develop that program.

In August 2000, Clinton presented McGovern with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his humanitarian service in the effort to eradicate world hunger.

McGovern remained in the Rome post through the early months of the George W. Bush administration, leaving it in September 2001. The next month, the World Food Program named him its first global ambassador on world hunger.


2008: McGovern addresses the crowd as he and Sen. Bob Dole, right, accept the World Food Prize. (World Food Prize)

In recent years, McGovern worked with Dole to continue support for domestic and international feeding programs, particularly through WFP USA, a group that raises private sector money for the World Food Program.

In 2008, McGovern and Dole won the World Food Prize for their joint efforts to fight hunger, particularly through the McGovern-Dole program.

In 2011, McGovern became a senior policy adviser at OFW Law, the agricultural and regulatory firm in which Matz is a partner, which has its offices in the Watergate complex. In a reference to the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate in 1972 when he was a presidential candidate, McGovern quipped, “I sure hope that no one breaks into my office this time.”

On October 6, McGovern made his final public appearance when he introduced his recorded narration for Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra.

McGovern’s legacy will be preserved at the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service, which was dedicated at Dakota Wesleyan University. The center was opened in 2006 by former President Clinton and seeks to prepare the college’s best students for future careers in public service through classes, seminars, research, and internships.

2012: Sen. George McGovern in March, signing a copy of his book "What It Means to Be A Democrat," with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who once worked as an aide in his office.