This column first appeared in December 2010. In 2020, the World Food Program won the Nobel peace prize.

Recently, I flew halfway across the country with former Senator George McGovern, traveling with the now 88-year old political veteran to his home state of South Dakota.

When McGovern was the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, I traveled with him almost all the time. I was what political insiders call his “body man.” So this was a trip for old times’ sake.

McGovern suffered an overwhelming loss to Richard Nixon, the incumbent president. He will be long remembered for that defeat and his identity as an avowed liberal, one of the few ever to run on a national ticket.

But he will also be remembered for working throughout his career to fight hunger.

On the flight, he told me the story about his role in launching the largest international food program.

In 1961, he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to head the White House Food for Peace program. This new office was built on McGovern’s previous efforts as a member of the House of Representatives to use American farm surpluses to feed the starving abroad as part of American foreign policy.

Not only would it gain support for the U.S., but it was a better way of disposing of surpluses than paying to store them.

That year, he was sent to a meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which wanted to launch an international food program.

On the Friday flight from Washington to Rome, where the FAO is located, he was briefed on the failure to get the program started. He asked what the United States was doing to help and was told it had made no commitment.

On Saturday, he called Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s advisor and speechwriter. He asked Sorenson to get Kennedy to come up with $100 million for the program. “But this is the weekend,” Sorenson protested. McGovern persisted.

On Sunday, Sorenson called back. The president had no power to appropriate money but he could allocate surpluses. He would pledge $50 million in food to get the program going.

On Monday, just as the FAO meeting was starting, McGovern as head of the U.S. delegation, asked for the floor. He announced the U.S. initiative.

The FAO director immediately called a recess and asked McGovern to meet with him privately. He asked if McGovern was merely grandstanding and if he was backed by Washington. McGovern assured him that President Kennedy had signed off on the proposal.

The FAO was soon able to launch the World Food Program, thanks in large measure to McGovern’s action.

Today, the World Food Program has an annual budget of $3.6 billion and the support of 73 countries. The United States contributes $1.5 billion in the form of food.

When you see news reports of a catastrophe like the Pacific tsunami or the Haiti earthquake and catch a glimpse of sacks of grain labeled as coming from the “People of the United States,” it is highly likely that this food is part of the World Food Program.

This year, it is providing food to 90 million people in more than 70 countries.

McGovern did more. He was the long-time chairman of the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which fought hunger in America, promoted better nutrition especially for the young, and developed the free food stamp program.

Together with Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican senator who was the G.O.P. presidential candidate in 1996, he proposed an internationally supported program to feed hungry children and also get them an education.

Under the McGovern-Dole program, supported by three successive presidents, food goes to children in the poorest countries. They get free, nourishing school lunches. That ensures they get at least one decent meal a day and must go to school to get it.

The program, feeding tens of millions of children, has boosted school attendance, especially by girls.

The United States has devoted about $100 million annually in food and administrative support to this program. Like the World Food Program, McGovern-Dole includes safeguards to make sure the food gets to those in need.

For their efforts, McGovern and Dole received the World Food Prize, a prestigious international award given to scientists and others who had taken specific steps “to improve the quality, quantity and availability of food.”

Under Clinton, McGovern was Ambassador to the FAO and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest decoration.

In this season of giving, Americans can take satisfaction from the little-known U.S. support for the domestic and international food programs that McGovern helped create.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: