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Former senators take on needs of hungry: Outlook Q & A with George McGovern

This Thanksgiving, as Americans sit to break bread and count their blessings, Bob Dole and George McGovern want them to think about the men, women and children all over the world who do not have enough to eat.

These men -- one a Republican, one a Democrat, both former U.S. Senators and presidential hopefuls -- have written a new book called "Ending Hunger Now."

Their basic argument is this: There is enough food being produced in the world. Millions do not need to go hungry, while others gather around tables piled with food, if governments and individuals have the political will to spend enough money to make it stop.

Dole was traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment. But McGovern, now 83 and living in South Dakota, took time for an interview. "I'm trying to live to 100," he said. "There are so many things I still want to do."

Outlook national reporter Leslie Scanlon interviewed McGovern and Donald E. Messer, a professor of practical theology and president emeritus at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.

Here are excerpts from those conversations.

This Thanksgiving, as Americans sit to break bread and count their blessings, Bob Dole and George McGovern want them to think about the men, women and children all over the world who do not have enough to eat.

These men — one a Republican, one a Democrat, both former U.S. Senators and presidential hopefuls — have written a new book called “Ending Hunger Now.”

Their basic argument is this: There is enough food being produced in the world. Millions do not need to go hungry, while others gather around tables piled with food, if governments and individuals have the political will to spend enough money to make it stop.

Dole was traveling out of the country and could not be reached for comment. But McGovern, now 83 and living in South Dakota, took time for an interview. “I’m trying to live to 100,” he said. “There are so many things I still want to do.”

Outlook national reporter Leslie Scanlon interviewed McGovern and Donald E. Messer, a professor of practical theology and president emeritus at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.

Here are excerpts from those conversations.

GEORGE McGOVERN

McGovern said he’s been concerned about hunger since, as a soldier in Italy in World War II, he saw mothers and their children foraging in the garbage for scraps of food.

Q: As you look at the situation from that time to now, do you feel more optimistic or more pessimistic about the world’s response to hunger?

A: I’m more optimistic in the sense that we have the tools at hand and the knowledge to accomplish this task of cutting the number of hungry people, chronically hungry people, from 800 million to 400 million. We can do that in the next 10 years if we decide to do it. By “we” I’m talking about the international community, but with the United States in the lead. I think it should be done primarily through the United Nations Agencies on Food and Agriculture. One of the best of those agencies is the World Food Program, which I was instrumental in getting started back in 1962 when I was running the Food for Peace program for President Kennedy. …

The other one is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, sometimes just referred to as FAO. And they work on the problem of increasing food production in the developing world. They’re not a food distribution agency. The two of them together could put an end to hunger on this planet if the member nations decide that’s what they want to do.

Q: Do you think the U.S. has supported that at the levels it ought to? And if not, why not?

A: We’ve done more than anybody else but it’s still comparatively minor part of the total budget. The total foreign assistance of all kinds, not only food assistance but the total of all kinds, is about one-eighth of one percent of our gross national product. If we could get that up to 1 percent and other nations would follow suit, we could accomplish this task.

School Lunch Programs

In the late 1990s, McGovern served as the U.S. ambassador in Rome to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies. And he supports an effort to reach 400 million hungry people by 2015 — 300 million children through international school lunch programs and 100 million through a program for pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children (similar to the U.S. Women, Infants and Children program, known as WIC). McGovern said about 120 million hungry children aren’t in school, many of them girls.

“We’ve learned from pilot programs we’ve been operating for some years what happens when you start a school lunch program, whether it’s in Guatemala or Nigeria or Bangladesh. The enrollment immediately jumps dramatically,” he says. “Nobody’s yet found a better magnet for pulling little kids into school than the promise of a good meal every day. It’s really quite dramatic to see the results. And that includes the girls. The parents suddenly discover that maybe the girls could get more out of school than they would doing housework or working in the fields. … It’s not uncommon to double school enrollment once you start a good school lunch program.”

The academic performance goes up substantially, McGovern added.

“And the third thing is to me the most fascinating. These little girls that stay at home are illiterate, unable to write their names or even read a simple book or newspaper. They have an average of six children, usually before they’re of 20 years of age. The ones who go to school, even if it’s only grades one through six, they marry later in life, they have a better sense of what life is all about. They’re not as easy to push around by boys and men. And they have an average of 2.9 children. So you slightly more than cut in half the birth rate if you can get little girls into school.”

Q: What are some of the forces working against the creation of such programs?

A: It’s the lethargy both of the receiving country and of the developing countries that would have to help underwrite this for a while. We tell countries when we start one of these pilot programs, “We’re going to help you for five or six years, depending on conditions in the country, but we expect you to take this over at some point.” It would be a mistake to say we’re going to indefinitely provide a school lunch for the children of Nigeria or some other country. We warn them that this is a temporary relief and we hope they will continue trying to improve their own food production and that they’ll invest more of what budget they have in education, including school lunches. What we’re trying to do is to give them five or six, maybe in some cases up to10 years to make this transition.

Q: Do some people also see this as trying to change the social order of the country?

A: There’s a little bit of that … (saying) “We need those kids out in the field and what good is education when we need to keep body and soul together?” There is a tendency in some countries to say we can’t afford to put all of our children in school.

What can people do?

Q: What role do you see congregations and people of faith playing in all of this? And how well do you think they’re doing?

A: I think they’re doing pretty well. … I think members of congregations should find out how much of the budget goes to overseas programs, and what kinds of programs are we backing. Is it AIDS, is it hunger, is it sanitary water, is it education? What do we as a church (do) overseas? And if it seems rather meager, members of the congregation could suggest a higher allocation for that purpose, maybe creating special offerings for it. … These things make such a difference in the lives of people almost overnight.

(Some congregations also support particular projects to fight hunger, such as the Empty Bowls program.) They can also light a fire under their congressman to support this international school lunch program. It’s called the George McGovern and Robert Dole International School Lunch and Child Nutrition Program. It’s an action that’s been passed by the Congress. So far they’ve provided a half a billon dollars, which isn’t a bad beginning. President Clinton provided the first $300 million and we’ve gotten another $200 million out of the present administration.

Q: What do you think are the forces in this country that work against greater aid for these kinds of efforts?

A: One thing is the mistaken notion that we’re already doing too much on the foreign aid front. The average American, based on the public opinion polls I’ve seen, believes we’re doing a lot more than we are. (Some are convinced that a quarter of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid, instead of an eighth of one percent.)

The mistaken impression is that foreign aid is a big part of the budget already, so why increase it? Even members of Congress have an exaggerated notion of how much aid the United States is giving abroad. … I hasten to add that the United States in total does more than anybody else. But we’re about 20th in the percent of our GNP that goes to foreign aid, compared to other countries.

Q: What do you say to those who say, “This is such a big problem, what can one person do?”

A: Everybody can work through their own church or philanthropic group. If they’re not people of faith, they can help the Care Program or the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.

Q: What about hunger in the United States? Is that a different picture than you’re seeing in other countries?

A: There’s almost nobody starving in the United States. But there are 30 million, Americans estimated, that don’t have an adequate food budget. Most of those people, or at least a substantial part of them, are on food stamps. But they run out of food stamps in many cases a week or 10 days before the end of the month, before the next allocation. So I think we need to reverse some of the cutbacks that were made in the food stamp program in the 1980s in the Reagan period, make that program a little more generous. And there’s one more step we could take that would almost end hunger in the United States. That’s a modest increase in the minimum wage. If you increased the minimum wage and you increased the availability of food stamps, you could just about wipe out hunger and malnutrition in the United States.

Q: Are people sometimes looking to place blame — saying people are hungry because they’ve not got enough education or aren’t willing to take a job or aren’t willing to work hard enough or had too many kids?

A: There is some of that. It’s kind of a vicious circle, because if you don’t have enough to eat you are lethargic. You’re not always fired up, ready to go to work every morning. You don’t always produce as efficiently as people who are well-fed … It’s like tying someone’s hand behind their back and asking them to produce.

Q: The book speaks of hunger being invisible. Why do you think that’s so?

A: The people who are hungry aren’t in wheelchairs for the most part. They’re not picketing. They’re not complaining. They’re just kind of dragging on day after day not fully sure what is wrong with them. In my opinion it’s the most urgent single problem in the world, and all you have to do to be convinced of that argument is just cut yourself down to a little saucer of gruel once a day for 30 days and then ask yourself, “What’s the most urgent problem I face?” It’s a very painful, urgent problem.

One of the reasons so many children die before they reach the age of five is they die of childhood diseases that our kids throw off because they’re better nourished. If you’re an undernourished child, maybe it began during the pregnancy period of the mother; you’re going to be more subject to pneumonia and to measles and to infections of various kinds. These are silent killers; they slip up on you. A bad cold, chest congestion, things like that can kill children if they’re malnourished.

I’ve walked through probably 10,000 dusty villages in the last 50 years. I see this problem up close. It’s not hard to discover — it’s all around you. You see little kids lean down to a dirty puddle of water, cup their hands and put it up to their mouths and drink this unsanitary water. … If you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink muddy water even though the chickens and cows and human beings have discharged impurities into it. Sanitary water goes hand in hand with better nutrition.

Q: What would you want Americans at Thanksgiving, living for the most part in a land of plenty, to be thinking about in terms of the world condition?

A: They should give thanks for that  … for the bountiful diet they have here. That’s a good time to think about the needs of people around the world. It would be good if at every Thanksgiving table there would be a brief pause to pray that other people would have some of the same things we enjoy in abundance. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I don’t like New Years. I don’t like the Fourth of July. I like Thanksgiving because it is a time of showing gratitude for what we have. It’s also a time to think about the needs of other human beings.

I’d love to see the United States move its foreign assistance up to 1 percent of the federal budget. That would be a big step. Then we could use the other 99 percent to build up the military and homeland security and all these other things.

Q:  Do you see public advocacy as being essential for people of faith?

A: We have to have the votes from the majority of Congress to maintain this international school lunch program. So far we’ve been doing pretty well. It helps to have Bob Dole as my co-sponsor, because he can reach people I can’t and vice-versa. The two of us together have had a pretty good reception on Capitol Hill and we’re going to keep at it. We haven’t been in yet to see Bush. We scored with Bill Clinton–$300 million to get us started. I think we’re going to try early next year to talk directly to Bush and Condoleezza Rice and other officials in the administration to see if we can’t increase the U.S. contribution.

Q: What can individual people do to help?

A: They can contribute directly to the World Food Program. … We can provide a pretty nutritious lunch across the world for 19 cents a day for each child. … For one dollar, you can feed a kid a meal for one week.

 

DONALD MESSER

Q: Tell me how you got so involved in working on behalf of those who are hungry.  Has this been a lifelong passion for you?

A: I first encountered the dilemma of hunger in a decisive and dramatic way as a young student. I left the comforts of rural South Dakota and went off for a year to study. I can still see the faces of the children in Hong Kong who were at that time refugees from mainline China, and the shocking conditions of the poor in that struggling place. And then I went on to India where the issues of poverty and hunger greeted one every day. You couldn’t walk anywhere in the town where I studied without stepping over children in the train station who were literally starving, people begging everywhere. … Those haunting images have influenced me.

Q: Do you think things are better today or worse?

A: They’re definitely better. … Clearly there is still hunger in India. Not because there’s not enough food, there’s enough food in India. In the days that I’m talking about there wasn’t enough food. Today there’s enough food, but you still have the issues of distribution and justice and sharing that plague India. … We have a world that’s producing enough food and we obviously have enough resources to make that food available. At this point it’s a matter of political will.

Q: What are some of the obstacles to doing that?

A: Other priorities seem to take precedence over that, repeatedly. People seem to fall into war pretty quickly, and that’s a very high expenditure of money. … You’ve got people blinded by their own self-interests, so they want to keep resources themselves and not share and raise the level of living for all people.  We Christians call that sin. It’s a stain to us personally as well as socially and politically. It’s hard to keep momentum going … in a single act you can’t solve the issue. You have to be continually committed to this cause of doing it. Another reason is it’s complex. It’s not just a matter of taking an abundance of food in one place and shipping it to another. You do that in part but you also need to build the infrastructure, so people in every place can raise sufficient food. It’s a matter of economic and social development around the world.

Q: Do you sense that there’s also a lack of caring on the part of many people — that they just don’t pay attention?

A: I’m guilty of that myself. There’s hardly anybody who wouldn’t give lip service to wanting to feed the hungry. It’s just that we fail to discipline ourselves to belong to an organization that does it on a regular basis. It’s so out of our sight and out of mind and we fail to keep ourselves connected with the situation.

Q: It’s easy in the United States to not notice it. If you live a more affluent lifestyle, it’s easy to not go to the places or know the people or make the connections where you’re in contact face to face with people who have a much different way of life than yours.

A: Our cities are structured that way, with suburbs and roads and workplaces. I go back and forth from home to seminary without encountering a single homeless person or a single hungry person, at least one I know about. (But when you get involved with groups fighting hunger), you see people streaming out to the food banks, to free food, you see thousands and thousands in any city in the country. I point out in the book that some of the highest rates are not in the big metropolitan areas like Detroit and New York. Some of the highest are in places like Salt Lake City and Louisville, Kentucky … I talk about the invisible continent of the hungry in the book. If you put all these people in the same place, you’d have this forgotten, invisible continent.  There are something like 848 million people, a population exceeding all of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Q: What is the responsibility of people of faith and of congregations to do something about hunger?

A: Number one is to reflect upon our own faith and our own teachings. It’s pretty clear that the biblical instructions are overwhelmingly to feed the hungry … Matthew 25 is pretty explicit. I think actually whether you’re Presbyterian or Methodist or Catholic or whatever you are, almost every Christian is a fundamentalist on Matthew 25. We really believe Jesus said to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That’s absolutely a mandate. … Whether we’re liberal or conservative, we all agree on that. … Presbyterians are united in the belief that we are to feed the hungry. So let’s do it.

(Congregations also have a responsibility) to be a public voice to seek to create compassion without borders and to encourage the political will. When I asked Sen. Dole, for example, what he thought the role of the churches should be in combating hunger, I thought he might focus primarily on food banks, feeding the hungry in particular church places, but his first response is to be a lobbyist for Africa. He says people in Washington, politicians of both parties, don’t have that as a priority, to think about the poor of the world. The church has to continually lift the voice of those who have no voice.

Q: What kind of grade would you give most churches in the U.S. on this?

A: I hate grading as a professor — it’s pretty subjective. But I think our church people have a pretty good record. They always respond in cases of emergency — you can count on churches throughout the land as we saw in the aftermath of Katrina and the tsunami. The harder part is to do the political will, to transform those personal acts of kindness and compassion into the will to press the politicians and decision-makers to provide better programs for school lunch or WIC programs or do those international things. Our grade is not so good there.

Q: What have you learned about the disproportionate impact of hunger on women and children?

A: There is no question that the world reserves the worst stigmatization and discrimination against women in every place. That’s a matter not only in terms of economic justice but social well-being and health issues. My primary focus in recent years has been on the HIV-AIDS pandemic around the world. That issue is never going to be resolved and we’re not going to move towards an AIDS-free world until we uplift the role and status of women in countries. Because women have less food, they have less medical care, they have less protection against violence, less economic and political standing in country after country and culture after culture. So women and children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and HIV-AIDS.

Q: What connection do you see between food — the ability to have enough to eat for children–and education?

A: Children cannot study, learn, if they’re not sufficiently fed. A starving body takes precedence over an inquiring mind.

Q: You write about ending hunger as being a real possibility. Many probably view hunger as an incredible, intractable problem that’s always been with us and which doesn’t go away. You seem to be saying that’s not true — that we have enough food and, if we had the will, we could fix this and eradicate hunger. How widely shared is your view?

A: You’re correct in that people think hunger’s always with us. Many times we give up before we start trying. Yet among authorities in the field of food and those who work in this field all the time, there seems to be little disagreement that we could eliminate hunger or reduce it if we chose to do so. This is probably one of the few books that quotes both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. It’s really a bipartisan, red, white and blue issue — there’s not really disagreement. It’s a question of whether we’re going to do it or not, and whether we’re going to move beyond saying we’re going to do it to actually committing sufficient resources.

Q: In the U.S., what do you see as some of the political forces working against fighting hunger?

A: Our increasing deficits these days in the United States make the battle of the budgets increasingly difficult. … Obviously as long as we’re engaged in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, they chew up an enormous proportion of the federal budget, which keeps us from addressing social issues. This is not a new issue. In the book we quote Dwight Eisenhower, who as a general understood military issues but he felt every bomber, every missile was a theft from a hungry child. … Nobody will admit in a political campaign that they’re against feeding the hungry. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll actually in office support school lunch programs or food stamps or international aid or the work of the World Food Program. …There’s many a slip between what you say you’re going to do and what actually happens in the policy-making process.

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