Have you ever been truly hungry? Former U.S. Senator George McGovern suggests a unique approach to understanding that feeling: Live for a month on a daily ration of either a single piece of bread or a cup of watery gruel made from cereal grain. At the end of 30 days you will probably be feeling the hunger that 1.3 billion of the world’s citizens live with on a daily basis.
With a world population of 6 billion, one in seven people are chronically hungry, says McGovern, now the United States Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization based in Rome, Italy. Of those, 300 million are school-age children—the target of a new effort to provide at least one nutritious meal a day to those children.
The program targets 80 Third World countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where hunger is a daily way of life. In 30 countries, pilot programs have begun this year to provide lunch programs through the schools for every school-age child, McGovern says.
And the results have been dramatic. In countries where the school lunch program has begun, school attendance has more than doubled and grade performance has gone up dramatically.
Still, as many as 130 million Third World children receive no schooling. In many of those countries, according to McGovern, there is a marked preference for boys over girls and many girls are not allowed to attend school. Illiterate girls marry and begin having children when they are as young as 11, and the birth rate for illiterate young women is six or more children, he says. When girls are educated, they marry later and the birth rate drops to 2.9 children per woman, a reduction of more than 50 percent.
“One way to end hunger is to lower the birth rate,” McGovern says. “It’s not a cure-all of all the problems of the world, but it’s a beginning.”
McGovern, who has a summer home in the Bitterroot Valley, laid out his participation in the fight against world hunger at a presentation of the Sunday Series at the Ravalli County Museum last week.
As a child during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he remembers young men stopping at his parents’ home seeking to do chores for a sandwich or a hot meal. McGovern’s father was a Methodist minister and he says he recalls that all who asked were fed.
But those men were the victims of a national disaster and had not been raised with chronic hunger. His first introduction to true starvation came in 1942 when he was sent to Italy to pilot a bomber. Arriving by boat, the U.S. airmen were met by hundreds of children lining the dock and screaming out the names of American candy bars.
McGovern said he was proud to serve his country and he accomplished 35 bombing missions while stationed in Italy. He’s equally proud that, at the end of the war, the bombers were loaded with all the food in the U.S. camps and distributed throughout Italy to the same cities that had been bombed just weeks earlier.
When McGovern was appointed to serve as Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the U.N., he asked for an appointment with President Bill Clinton to discuss his idea to feed children through the schools. He anticipated a 10-minute meeting. Instead, he was given an hour and a half with the president and his chiefs of staff.
“He listened and then he slapped the table and said, ‘That’s a grand idea. How fast can we go for it?’ and then we spent an hour finding ways to implement the ideas,” McGovern says. A week later while at a summit of industrialized nations in Japan, Clinton announced $300 million from the United States to help fund the program. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain pledged his enthusiastic support as well.
That $300 million is not only good for the hungry children of the world, it has a direct and tangible benefit to American farmers, McGovern points out. The Secretary of Agriculture will spend that money to buy grain and soy products from American farmers this year. Next year, McGovern hopes the program will expand to include the purchase of fruits and vegetables and beef, pork and poultry.
“We’re doing this for humanitarian reasons, but we’re also actively helping American food producers,” McGovern says. “It’s a successful marriage of human interest and selfishness.”
McGovern says this is the most important campaign he has ever participated in. “I consider this more important than running for the presidency in 1972,” McGovern says. “We lost that time. This time I want to win.”
McGovern hopes to see the nations of the U.N. expand support for the program in coming years. He believes it is a realistic goal to be providing a lunch program to all 300 million hungry school-age children within the next four to five years. Then he hopes to expand the program to reach the other 800 million people who are either older or younger than the school children. By 2015, he hopes the number of chronically hungry people in the world can be cut in half. The ultimate goal is to end world hunger by 2030.
“I’ll continue to hammer at any new administration—whoever is elected—about the importance of this program,” McGovern promises. “I believe that no one should be chronically hungry.”