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McGovern book feeds hope for end to hunger


We are increasingly weary of seeing photos of bodies of emaciated children and the statistics on how hunger and malnutrition continue to plague 800 million people. We keep thinking over and over again that this has to be a problem we can conquer.

Some evidence that the world may have at least commenced the beginning of the end of the world famine is now available in a new book titled The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time by George McGovern (Simon & Schuster).

After reading McGovern’s book you will not be able to relax and move on to another global problem. But you will be relieved to know that there are fewer starving children now than in the recent past.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that hunger declined steadily in the developing world from 959 million undernourished in 1991 to 792 million in 1998. But this still means that every seventh person on the planet is malnourished.

In the United States, the recent census reveals that 31 million Americans, including 12 million children, experienced hunger in 1999. But the country had 3.5 million fewer hungry people in 1999 than in 1995.

McGovern, presidential nominee in 1972 and U.S. senator from 1965 to 1981, grew up amid the farms of South Dakota. He learned compassion for the hungry from his father, a Protestant clergyman.

In The Third Freedom McGovern tells us about how America improved over the last 40 years in connection with world hunger. But he also tells us about America’s inconstancy in producing solutions, even though solutions can sometimes be easy, and polls show that Americans support hunger relief. A Pew Research Center poll in 1998 recorded that 72 percent of Americans believe that government should see to it that no one is without food, clothing and shelter. The same proportion told pollsters that ending world hunger should be the top priority of American foreign policy.

McGovern has spent a lifetime seeking to eradicate hunger. He was the first director under President Kennedy of the U.S. Food for Peace Program. He was the leader in the U.S. Senate on all issues relating to food and agriculture. He was one of the architects of the U.S. program for school lunches and food stamps. In his book he combines that experience with the world vision that he has deepened in his role as ambassador to a trio of U.N. agencies -- the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program.

McGovern does not oversimplify the tasks he explains. His last chapter treats of the intractable problems involved in producing adequate water for crops and for children -- a need that will impose a cost of some $9 billion annually on the international community.

McGovern’s book, like all of the copious literature about world hunger, states that the money, technology and expertise necessary to banish hunger exists. It is the political will that is absent. A wide variety of nongovernmental organizations have been working diligently to galvanize that political will. Among the leaders of such groups is Bread for the World, a religiously affiliated citizens group that lobbies and prays for public policies that seek to eliminate hunger. Headed by David Beckman, a Lutheran pastor and a former official of the World Bank, Bread for the World (www.bread.org) is effective, successful and inspiring.

McGovern has been asked by Secretary of State Colin Powell to stay on in his position as ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization. McGovern, along with Robert Dole, like McGovern a former U.S. senator and former presidential candidate, will meet with President Bush about their plan to mount a global effort to furnish at least one meal each day for all the school children in the world. President Clinton and his advisers were enthusiastic about this proposal. It could bring millions of youngsters to school who do not now attend, especially girls. It could sharply reduce the current rate of malnutrition. A meal a day would also be good economic news for food producers and marketers in the United States.

But even if every good plan to curb hunger were carried out, in the near future we would still be confronted with the image of emaciated faces and ghastly situations. We can look on this as a way to remember and revere Christ who in his own words identified himself with the pain and suffering of every child of God. We can also be consoled by the undeniable reality that whatever we do for the hungry we do for Christ himself.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgeto wn.edu

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001