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The Gourmet Q + A: George McGovern

11.05.08
George McGovern
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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?

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