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How two dead South Dakotans continue to feed the world


How two dead South Dakotans continue to feed the world

Sep 28, 2023 | 6:08 pm ET
By Seth Tupper
How two dead South Dakotans continue to feed the world
South Dakota natives Hubert Humphrey, left, and George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention on July 13, 1972, at Miami Beach Convention Center in Florida. (Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

There are politicians who spend their entire careers pursuing power and fame. There are others who set aside those ambitions long enough to make a lasting difference.

A reminder of that truism arrived recently in the form of a news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The release said the department is awarding a combined $455 million of funding through two international food initiatives: Food for Progress, and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.

Yes, the latter program is named in part for that McGovern — George, the late congressman, senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee from South Dakota who devoted much of his career to addressing world hunger. 

School meals for millions

When Congress and then-President George W. Bush authorized the creation of the McGovern-Dole program in 2002, they named it for McGovern and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas. They were both out of office by then but were chosen as the program’s namesakes because of their longtime advocacy for programs addressing global childhood hunger.

The recent news release from the Ag Department said the McGovern-Dole program will award $230 million to projects in the 2024 fiscal year. That will maintain the program’s status as the largest donor to global school feeding programs. The project sites include Cameroon, Haiti, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and Togo.

Since its creation, the McGovern-Dole program has provided 5.5 billion school meals to 31 million children in 48 countries.

McGovern, who like Dole was a World War II veteran, was justifiably proud of the program and had a simple way of summarizing the benefits of feeding school kids. He said peace requires education, and “you can’t educate a child who is hungry.” He reasoned that feeding school kids around the world would not only help them learn, but could also motivate their parents to send them to school in the first place.

Food for Peace and Progress

The McGovern-Dole program and many other international food assistance efforts have their roots in the Food for Peace Act of 1954. A leading proponent of that legislation was another South Dakotan, Hubert Humphrey. By then, he had moved to Minnesota, launched a long political career, and become a Democratic U.S. senator.

Humphrey thought U.S. agricultural surpluses held the potential to reduce conflict around the world, by feeding hungry people in poor countries.

In a 1959 speech, he described the approach as “a constructive American foreign policy designed to build a stable and enduring peace through the conquests of poverty, disease and suffering.”

You can't educate a child who is hungry.

– George McGovern

John F. Kennedy expanded Food for Peace when he became president in 1961, and he appointed McGovern as the program’s director. McGovern was in political limbo at the time, having given up his U.S. House seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1960 (he ran again in 1962, won, and served in the Senate through 1980).

The modern Food for Progress program, a descendant of Food for Peace, will award $225 million to projects in the 2024 fiscal year, according to the recent announcement from the Ag Department.

Food for Progress donates agricultural commodities to countries in need, and the commodities are sold on the local market. The proceeds are used to support agricultural, economic or infrastructure development programs.

Ambition and moral imperatives

The Ag Department cited the example of Burundi to illustrate how the McGovern-Dole program and Food for Progress work in tandem to promote peace and prosperity around the globe.

With the new funding, the McGovern-Dole program will provide the African nation — by some measures the poorest country in the world — with 6,000 metric tons of U.S. ag commodities and 2,000 metric tons of locally produced commodities for daily school meals to feed 80,000 children.

Funding through Food for Progress will help the Burundi Better Coffee Initiative. The initiative’s goal is training and equipping 60,000 households for work in the country’s high-potential, underdeveloped coffee-farming industry.

That’s the kind of work that’s still happening 45 years after Humphrey’s death, 11 years after McGovern’s, and two years after Dole’s.

All three men had personal ambition, as each of their ill-fated presidential campaigns showed. But they balanced that with a moral imperative to make the world a better place. And in large part due to their efforts, millions of less fortunate people around the world are better fed.

That’s quite a legacy, and one that modern politicians would do well to emulate.