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Published October 29, 2012, 11:41 AM

McGovern's legacy is anti-hunger advocacy

Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., who died Oct. 21, 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 establish while also aiding the nation’s farmers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

ASHINGTON — Former Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., who died Oct. 21, 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 establish while also aiding the nation’s farmers.

McGovern’s funeral was held Oct. 26. He will be buried at a later date in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations food agencies, David Lane noted in a statement that 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.”

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

A history of accomplishment

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.

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 Oct. 21, Dole noted their bipartisan cooperation in fighting hunger and said McGovern was “a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.”

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.

After McGovern 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.”

Making a change

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, after 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.

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 low-income families.

The committee was 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 as congressional districts became concentrated in cities and suburbs.

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.

A brief break from politics

In the 1980, 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 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.

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.

On Oct. 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.

Being remembered

“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved,” President Barack Obama said. “He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Bob Dole also were among many who offered statements on McGovern’s death.