Go Back
Print this page

Food Politics

The Gourmet Q + A: George McGovern

George McGovern

On October 16th, in a ceremony held at the Iowa State House, in downtown Des Moines, former senators George McGovern (D-South Dakota) and Robert Dole (R-Kansas) were awarded the 2008 World Food Prize. Established in 1986 by Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug (the “father of the Green Revolution”), the prize recognizes contributions to the world’s food supply, in realms such as agricultural science and technology, nutrition, economics, poverty alleviation, and political leadership. The two former presidential candidates, who’ve been working together on hunger issues since the 1970s, created the George McGovern­–Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program in 2000. It has since provided more than 22 million meals to children in 41 countries. The pair’s leadership on school-lunch programs is credited with having encouraged a global commitment to similar initiatives, and has enhanced school attendance and nutrition for millions of the world’s poorest children, especially girls. Contributing editor Jocelyn Zuckerman spoke with the 86-year-old South Dakotan about the spiritual motivation behind his work, the long-term benefits of getting young girls into school, and the challenges in store for President Barack Obama.

Jocelyn Zuckerman: How did you and Bob Dole start working together on hunger problems?

George McGovern: We discovered at a certain point in our senate careers that the other one didn’t have horns, that we were human beings. So anything that had to do with veterans’ affairs, I’d follow his lead. As you know, he was shot to pieces in World War II, and barely survived the war. After the rest of us went home, he went to the veterans’ hospitals for three years. So it was a pleasure, after working with him on food and agriculture issues and veterans’ affairs, to be honored at the same time.

JZ: I know you headed up Kennedy’s first Food for Peace program in 1961. Was that your first involvement with food and hunger issues?

GM: I’d been interested in hunger before, and that’s why Jack Kennedy asked me to head the original Food for Peace office.

JZ: Where did the original interest come from?

GM: From seeing agricultural abundance here in South Dakota. We had feed grains running out of our ears, and didn’t know what to do with them, and they were depressing farm prices. Whenever you have a farm surplus, you’ve got a problem in sustaining the market price. So as a longtime member of the agricultural committee, which Bob Dole was, too—they had the same problems in Kansas that we had in South Dakota—we teamed up to see what could be done about using up these surpluses and not permitting them to destroy farm prices. And Food for Peace was the answer. I proposed that to Jack Kennedy while he was still running for President. And he picked up on it after the election and named me as the first director. My late wife, Eleanor, always thought that was the best job I ever had.

JZ: What, specifically, did it entail?

GM: It entailed finding the best place to ship several million tons of wheat, corn, corn meal, wheat flour, soybeans, soybean meal, and getting the various government agencies that had people in Washington working together. That’s what I did for a couple of years. I traveled around the world. One incident stands out in my memory. I was coming back from a mission in India, which was the biggest recipient of Food for Peace, and we stopped in Rome to see if we could get a private audience with Pope John XXIII. And we did. And when he came out to meet us, it was really an inspiring experience. I’m not a Catholic; I grew up with a Methodist clergyman, but he came out in this shining wardrobe, snow-white from head to toe, and went around and shook hands with everyone, and then he said to me, “When you go to meet your maker, and he asks, ‘Did you feed the hungry?’ you can say ‘I did.’ ” I’ll never forget that.

JZ: Your dad was a minister, right? And you have a divinity degree?

GM: I don’t have a divinity degree. I thought about being a clergyman, and I went to seminary for one year on the campus of Northwestern University at Garrett Biblical Institute. But I decided that I just wasn’t temperamentally fitted for the culture. So I simply moved across the campus of Northwestern into the history department, and went all the way through for a Ph.D. in history. But I’ve always been grateful for that year in the seminary. I had three wonderful professors. One on the Old Testament, one on the New Testament, and then William Warren Sweet, the leading authority on religion in America; he was a historian. Those three men played a great part in whatever little bit of wisdom I have.

JZ: So is the question of faith, and the sense of responsibility to other humans, part of what has motivated your work?

GM: It did indeed. You know, the New Testament is filled with admonitions to feed the hungry, and at one point Christ, who always spoke in parables, said that a king met with his staff, and they told him that they had given what they could to feed the hungry, and to clothe the naked, and to house the homeless, to give encouragement to the poor, and he said, “inasmuch as you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” So that verse, I took to heart; that if you wanted to serve God Almighty, you could do it by taking care of people. It’s hard to see God, and it’s hard to see the spirit, and Jesus Christ, but you can help people who are in trouble, and you have the Biblical assurance that if you do that you’ve served God. So those factors were in the back of my mind. Not that I wanted some divine reward. I wasn’t looking for any rewards—I don’t know whether I’ll even get there—but I was looking for some satisfactory way to utilize abundance in my own country with people who don’t have enough to eat.

JZ: Can you talk about how specifically the McGovern-Dole Program worked and continues to work?

GM: We’re the biggest food distribution agency in the history of the world. And we give away millions of tons of food to schoolchildren, to pregnant and nursing women and their infants; we give away money to people who have been hit by a hurricane, or a flood, or a war, or some other tragedy. I helped start the World Food Program when I was heading Food for Peace. I made the first offer of funds and commodities that got the World Food Program launched. I persuaded President Kennedy to authorize me to do that. I did that in 1962, at a meeting in Rome.

The United States, even if it wanted to, couldn’t feed the whole world, so we need to help Africa, and Latin America, and Asia, and parts of the Middle East, to produce their own food, and that’s what the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) does—they help farmers use more efficiently what available water there is; they help them develop or purchase quality seeds; they help them with crops that will resist drought, or wind storms, and so on. It’s the biggest and oldest of all the UN agencies. So they had committed themselves to reduce the 800 million people chronically hungry in the world down to 400 million. But they were making no progress at it until I arrived in Rome. My wife and I went for about an hour-long walk around Rome, and I’m thinking all the time about this problem, and when I got back to my office, I said, what about the U.S.-style school lunch program? So I did some research, or my staff did, and we discovered that there were 300 million hungry kids who got nothing to eat during the school day. Why not an American-style school lunch run by the United Nations, with the U.S. in the lead? I called Bob Dole and said, “I need some bipartisan sponsorship of this, will you join with me? You’re out of the Senate, I’m out of the Senate, but we’re both still alive, so why don’t we do this together?” It became the McGovern-Dole Program. We’re now reaching about 25 million kids, but that means we’ve got somewhere between 90 and 100 million still to go.

JZ: Can you talk a little bit about the impact it has on girls?

GM: Its most valuable component is what it does for girls, and I’ll tell you why. Of these 300 million school-age kids in the world, 100 million are not in school, and most of those are girls, because of the favoritism toward us males in most societies. When you start a school-lunch program, both the boys and the girls come. And the parents discover that their kids can get a free meal every day, just by turning up at the village school. So they get both the boys and girls out of bed in the morning and shoo them off to school. It leaves more food for the people at home—mom, dad—and it pulls these girls into school, as well as the boys.

JZ: What are some of the long-term impacts of getting the girls into school?

GM: Once they go to school, even if it’s just for six years, they marry four, five, six years later in life; they have a better sense of what life is about, and its opportunities for a girl who can read and write and do simple arithmetic. They’re not as easy to push around by boys and men as are the illiterate girls. And whereas the illiterate girls have an average of six children before they’re 20 years old, the ones who go to school have an average of three. So you cut the birth rate in half. That’s true in any society. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s New York, or Singapore, or Kenya—you give a girl six years or more of education, and you’re going to cut the birth rate in half.

JZ: Can you talk about the current global food crisis and what you see as its main causes?

GM: Well, the current world food crisis is very complicated; it’s based on a number of things. One is that Australia has always been one of the great food producers in the world, and they’ve had 15 years of drought. So they now have to import, instead of exporting millions of tons of food grain to other countries. That’s one thing. Second, we have an increase in armed conflict in the world, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Africa, including the tragedy in Rwanda, and Latin America, where governments are beset with conflict and upheaval. In addition to that, in some of the Western countries, most notably the United States, we’ve been converting corn into ethanol.

JZ: I’m curious to hear what you, as somebody from South Dakota, think about that.

GM: If you’re running for office in South Dakota, you try to make sure everybody knows that you’ve played a major part in producing ethanol. And that’s fine, but I think we need a little more research to see, what seems to be the case, that we can produce ethanol from cornstalks; we can produce ethanol from switchgrass; we can produce it from other growing things that are not food for humans. I think there’s a moral equation of using food for fuel to run our automobiles at a time when people are hungry. So, if I had been in Congress, I would have voted for the ethanol program. At that time, farm prices were low; we had surpluses of corn. But now, we’ve got this new problem of food shortages in some parts of the world, and we Americans, I think, have got to conserve what we have. I drive a big Buick Fifth Avenue, and I rationalize not replacing it on the grounds that it would take more energy to duplicate that car than to keep driving it. So when it wears out, I’m going to buy a small car. Not that I like it; I’m a big-car person. I was a bomber pilot in World War II, so I like big things. But we just can’t afford these gas guzzlers anymore.

JZ: What do you think is the role of the agricultural subsidies in the States? Because I think a lot of people put a large part of the blame on that.

GM: The [subsidies] that are spent on conservation of soil are worth it. Farmers are paid to let some of their land lie fallow, and I think that’s good. Farm price subsidies, which make it difficult for other countries, especially the developing countries, to compete with us: I think we have to look at some alternative possibilities there. Because these farm subsidies do take away markets from African countries. When farmers are paid a cash subsidy for their crops, then they can undersell countries that can’t afford such subsidies. And I think that American farmers themselves probably would like to take another look at that, to see if there are other ways that we can sustain farm income that doesn’t undercut farmers in other countries.

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 friendsofwfp.org.)