One of the lessons of the Friendship Train 70 years ago is that citizens can take an active role in determining U.S. foreign policy. The Friendship Train rolled across the country in 1947 collecting food donations for Europe, which was still suffering in the aftermath of World War II.
By the new year, donations arrived in France providing food for hungry school children. More donations went across the continent giving people hope that the post-war hunger would soon be gone.
With the American public so invested in feeding the hungry, the Congress could not drop the ball. They supported food aid packages for Europe and other areas affected by hunger. All this humanitarianism was the forerunner of the Marshall Plan, which ultimately rebuilt war-torn Europe. An interim food aid program provided school meals in Italy to help them get through the winter before the Marshall Plan kicked in.
The Marshall Plan could never have succeeded without food from America. As Secretary of State George Marshall himself said: “Food is the very basis of all reconstruction. Hunger and insecurity are the worst enemies of peace.”
Columnist Drew Pearson, who crafted the Friendship Train idea, wrote: “For the first time in years, the American people have found a means of taking part in American foreign policy. Instead of sitting at home, with no way of expressing themselves other than writing letters to their congressmen, the American people now have come to realize that food is a most important means of American foreign policy and that they can participate in it.”
The humanitarian actions of the Greatest Generation should inspire us. An effective American foreign policy fights hunger first.
But tragically President Trump has done little to advance the cause of fighting hunger. His budget proposals for 2018 even eliminated aid programs, including Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole global school lunch program.
We must do better if we are to win the peace.
We should increase funding for Food for Peace, which provides donations to Syria and other nations suffering with hunger. Another good place to start would be expanding the McGovern-Dole program. Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the McGovern-Dole initiative provides school meals to hungry children in developing countries.
The U.N. World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, and others use the funds to provide the school meals.
In many countries, families struggle to get one good meal a day, so children getting free food at school is a life-saver. It gives children a chance to escape hunger and get an education. School meals improve attendance and performance at school.
Catholic Relief Services is currently providing school meals in conflict-torn Mali.
Niek de Goeij, of CRS Mali, explains that “we want to emphasize the impact McGovern-Dole has had on families. Some children — particularly girls — described how school lunch is the main reason their parents send them to school to begin with, and how parents have benefited from the diminished hunger among their other children because they have one less mouth to feed during the school day.”
School meals quietly can change a family, a community, a nation for the better.
Never underestimate the power of school meals when making a foreign policy. It makes the best kind: a humanitarian one.
Right now the Congress has a chance to pass responsible budgets and fund critical food aid programs. The McGovern-Dole school lunch program typically gets about $200 million in funding, before President Trump proposed the zero funding.
Congress should raise McGovern-Dole funds to at least $300 million a year to provide more school meals across the globe. We could expand the number of children and nations that receive this vital food for education.
Thomas Awiapo of Ghana says that school meals from Catholic Relief Services saved his life when he was an orphan. He went on to get an education because of the school meals, and now is a leading advocate for lifting others out of poverty.
As it did for Thomas, the simple act of kindness of food at school can change the life of a child.
The food not only nourishes body and mind, but it provides hope. In countries with hunger, chaos and poverty hope can disappear. Evil forces like terrorism can thrive under those conditions.
Food, especially for children, can help lift the dark cloud of hunger and despair that lurks over many nations. The McGovern-Dole program, not only provides the school meals, but can help build a lasting national school lunch program which is a huge source of stability.
As we know for our own experience, every nation needs to provide school meals for its children. That is the future of any nation.
As we develop our foreign policy, let’s make it food first, and school meals first. That is the greatest step toward peace we can take.
William Lambers of Delhi, Ohio, is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Program on the book Ending World Hunger.
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