George McGovern – Carrying on his fight to end hunger

The travesty of Hunger may be slipping into the pale light of public awareness.  For too long hunger has hidden in the shadows, even as Americans feast on the exotic, waste our precious food resources, allow politics to shape farm policy, and fret about their waist while we waste with abandon,  and conveniently ignore – even excoriate –  those who go without nourishment.

When George McGovern died last month we were reminded just how long this nation has endured the creeping expansion of hungry and malnourished families, a reality well documented in the statistics of food shelves today.  Though the immediate focus is on jobs, jobs,, jobs quietly emerging from the wings is a glimmer of understanding of the long-term implications of hunger on children, families, the elderly, the unemployed and underemployed.

McGovern envisioned those implications and tried to tell the nation and the world, the public and the decision-makers.   Already a champion of efforts to end hunger, McGovern was first appointed as director of Food for Peace in 1961, over a half century ago.  Erthanin Cousin, current director of the UN World Food Programme, said of McGovern: “He saw – way before anyone else – how the simple sustained act of putting a meal in the hands of a poor child at school could change that child’s life and give them a chance at a better future.”

McGovern wrote books, including a classic co-authored with his across-the-aisle colleague Bob Dole.  He sponsored mountains of legislation including the food stamp program, school lunch program and the supplemental food assistance to women and children (WIC).

On his 90th birthday McGovern expressed his hope – possibly his conviction – that “the good Lord will extend my years beyond one hundred.  I do intend to complain loudly to St. Peter if I am called above (or raise the devil, if I’m called below) before we end hunger in America.“

Clearly, McGovern was not the lone voice crying in the wilderness.   For two thousand years Christians have quoted the Biblical exhortations to feed the hungry.  Other major faiths, including the basic tenets of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, include strong commitments to assuage hunger.  The Millennium Development Goals offer strong and detailed explication of the right to food.

Still McGovern’s death before his work was done is a profound and timely reminder of how the struggle to end hunger must continue. Today in this community the struggle is center-stage as individuals and organizations enlist to walk in and otherwise support the Walk to End Hunger. ( It’s Thanksgiving Day, 7:00-10:00 a.m. at the Mall of America.)  Area nonprofits involved in eliminating hunger are working in collaboration to raise awareness and funds.  Walkers and teams of walkers will be encouraging Minnesotans to “help others then help yourself.”  The Walk is sponsored by twelve partner organizations, a dozen of the scores of hunger-related organizations serving this community.  One good example of a more comprehensive list is managed by United Front Minnesota – there are many others.

Another positive step is that the media are spending time and resources on the issue of hunger.  Some local examples are:  TPT has been showing the series “Nourishing Lives, Ending Hunger” which I have viewed a couple of times now;  NPR ran a show on “The Ugly Truth About Food Waste in America”.  Locally, MPR has run several documentaries and investigative reports on hunger in this community.  Currently in production is a new film about “A Place at the Table.”  These are just a few of the several  mainstream media initiatives to raise the issue of hunger in the public consciousness.

In other ways individuals are assuming individual responsibility.  A recent article in the Strib described the initiative of MCTC students who cultivated a robust garden  in a small plot of land on that inner-city campus.  Everywhere individuals and families are trying to fill the food gap by toting bags of groceries to their place of worship or by increasing their contribution to the collection basket.

Individual and organization initiatives abound.  Still, as everyone knows, systemic change is glacial.  If systemic change is to be made, every advocate –  corporate, nonprofit, faith-based, media  or individual – must focus on the imperative to end hunger and how to put one foot in front of the other towards that common goal.  It may involve some fancy foot work and some stepping on of toes in the shuffle.  And all of these players need the focus and tenacity of George McGovern.

McGovern didn’t live to see the end of hunger in this nation, much less the world.  Still, he never wavered in the effort. One story told about McGovern is that he once had an audience with Pope John XXIII who is reported to have said to him “Mr. McGovern, when you go to meet your Maker and he asks, ‘Did you feed the hungry?’ You can say, “I did.”

McGovern’s  Maker may well be asking at this point, “So who’s working on feeding the hungry now?”

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