The Gourmet Q + A: George McGovern

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JZ: A few weeks back, The New York Times Magazine published a letter that Michael Pollan had written to the next President. In it Pollan traces the bad food policy in this country back to Nixon and Earl Butz, and faults federal policies that have promoted the maximum production of these commodities over the years. Do you agree that that’s where we started down the wrong road?

GM: We are in deep trouble ourselves. I think the next President is inheriting a situation where we’ve got to come up with some new ideas. And fortunately, he’s committed to that. He has talked about nothing more than the need for change.

JZ: Does it feel to you similar to the Kennedy era, this whole Obama phenomenon?

GM: It even reminds me of my own campaign, back in ’72. I lost heavily. But we had the same kind of grassroots organization. So we won states that hadn’t been won by the Democrats for a long time, in terms of getting people out for the election. I didn’t beat Nixon—he snowed me under—but even from his standpoint, he’d have been better off if I had won in ’72, and certainly the country would have. So I don’t have any regrets about trying, and I’m glad that Barack is about to make it on a platform of change. I was accused of being too radical at the time. I don’t think I was radical; I think I was just realistic. It takes a while for these things to catch on. Change doesn’t occur ordinarily in a revolutionary way. But I think we’re now at the point where most Americans are kind of fed up.

JZ: Some people are calling for the appointment of a food czar, somebody to come in and better coordinate among the USDA, USAID, and the State Department. Do you think that’s necessary?

GM: I think it might be. In a sense, that’s what I did in ’61 and ’62, the first two years of the Kennedy Administration. I was performing that function, bringing agriculture, USAID, the State Department, and the Budget Bureau all together in dealing with global hunger and also domestic hunger.

JZ: How have you worked on dealing with domestic hunger?

GM: Well, there again, Bob Dole and I teamed up on that. I was the chairman of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs—in fact it was my bill that created that committee. And for the next decade, we greatly expanded school lunches. Up until that time, you didn’t eat at school unless you had the full amount of money for the school lunch: $1.50. So the families that had two or three kids in school, a lot of them just couldn’t afford that, so they just didn’t eat. They might have taken a peanut butter sandwich to school, or they might have gotten an ice cream bar or something on their own, but they didn’t eat in the federal school-lunch program. We created a system of free and reduced-price lunches. Free to really poor kids; reduced-price to the poor who had something to contribute. And so we doubled the school-lunch participation. This was in ’73 to ’80. We tripled the food-stamp program by making it more lenient for people to get in and more generous. We started a new program called Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants through the age of five. So we revolutionized food assistance during that period. And then we came out with one of the most widely publicized government publications in our history: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It still serves as a touchstone for anybody writing on nutrition. And what we did was to move the American people—these are not just poor people, but all of us—from such a heavy reliance on fat, and sugar, and salt, into more of a reliance on vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain cereals. And that was a revolutionary move that has Americans living longer and being healthier in the years they do.

JZ: What’s likely to happen to these programs moving forward, given the economic crisis?

GM: Well, that’s going to make it harder. But I think we’re still going to be moving forward. We’ve got $184 million mandated that we’ll spend in this coming year, and we can keep a lot of programs going at that level. And I think that Barack Obama won’t be stingy with this program. It’s got such appeal: It cuts across party lines, it has a deep moral tone to it, it’s an economic investment that’s sound, a health benefit that’s sound, so I think we’ll keep it moving.

JZ: Can you talk about its importance in terms of national security?

GM: Well, the more youngsters in these developing countries that grow up with enough to eat, and the healthier they are, my assumption is they’re going to be that much less vulnerable to terrorist appeals, and to joining violent conflict. I think people who have enough to eat are just more stable and dependable in terms of maintaining order. So it does have some national security overtones, but that has to be several notches down on the list of the most important things it does.

JZ: You’ve accomplished an enormous amount in your 86 years. What is there remaining that you hope to get done?

GM: Well, I think this is enough, right here—if I can live long enough to see that every kid in the world who’s of school age is getting a good meal every day, and that every pregnant and nursing mother and their infants through the age of five—we’re talking about close to a billion people—if we can reach them all, if we can get that done, I’ll have used my remaining years as wisely as I can.

(For more information, or to donate to the World Food Program, visit

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