WASHINGTON - Decades ago, two senators with strongly opposing political views joined to help shape several landmark anti-hunger efforts, including food stamps, a nutritional plan for pregnant women and infants, and the national school-lunch program.
Today, Democrat George McGovern and Republican Bob Dole are using their status as elder statesmen to promote a new anti-hunger idea - an international school-lunch program to feed hungry children around the world.
Called the “McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Initiative,'' the program uses school lunches to persuade low-income parents in developing countries to send their children, especially daughters, to school.
The program also funds nutritional programs for pregnant and nursing mothers, similar to the federal Women, Infants and Children program.
In 2001, the initiative's first year, an estimated 7.7 million children in 38 countries participated in the international school-lunch program. The program helped boost student enrollment, particularly of girls, in schools in Pakistan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, and other countries, according to Department of Agriculture officials.
They estimate that about 120 million school-age children, a majority of them girls, aren't enrolled in school, partly because of hunger or malnutrition.
“No one has yet found a better magnet for pulling kids into school than the promise of a meal every day,'' Mr. McGovern said. “Of course, the lunches then help improve the nutritional health of these children so they can learn.''
Mr. McGovern, who serves as the first U.N. global ambassador on world hunger, said the program also could help reduce the birth rate in developing countries. Research has shown that girls who have had some schooling and can read are likely to bear fewer children, he noted.
Other officials believe the program will play an important role in reducing the international terrorist threat by building goodwill among poor people in developing countries.
“This is a program that can build friendships for America in some of the most forgotten corners of the world,'' said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, Toledo). Miss Kaptur serves as the top Democrat on the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee, which funds the McGovern-Dole program.
In a statement last year, Mr. Dole agreed, noting that he is “positive that widespread hunger is one of the contributing factors that leads to discontent and creates an environment that is conducive to terrorism and distrust.''
The Bush administration has voiced strong public support for the McGovern-Dole program. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said, “It demonstrates America's compassion to improve the lives of children around the world.''
But the Bush administration has proposed cutting funding for the program. For this year, the program was cut from $300 million to $100 million. For next year, the Bush administration has proposed spending only $50 million on it.
The final figure for fiscal 2004 still is being worked out. The House has earmarked $56.8 million for the program, while the Senate would spend only $25 million on it.
“At the same time we are being asked to spend $87 billion in Iraq for war-making purposes and reconstruction, we aren't dealing with the seedbeds of terrorism in other places,'' Miss Kaptur said. “This is so achievable and so necessary.''
There is definite public support for anti-hunger efforts, both domestic and international, according to a new poll conducted for Bread for the World.
A poll taken recently in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two presidential caucus and primary states, shows that 90 percent of the Democrats polled said they believe that a candidate's position on reducing the hunger and poverty problem would be important in deciding their vote.
A poll taken of both Democrats and Republicans in June had similar findings, said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger group.
The McGovern-Dole initiative represents just a small part of the billions of dollars the United States targets each year for foreign development and agricultural assistance in developing nations. But the program has been spotlighted because of its famous sponsors as well as the fact that it “internationalizes'' a popular U.S. program.
“Foreign aid is generally about as popular as AIDS, whereas just about everybody agrees that feeding hungry kids is important,'' Mr. McGovern said. He estimates it would cost about $6 billion annually to bring the school-lunch program to all the children in the world who need it.
He called on his friend Mr. Dole to help drum up support for the program, and Congress agreed to create it as an experimental program in 2001. The next year, the program was made a permanent fixture in the federal bureaucracy as part of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.
Early in the experimental stage of the McGovern-Dole initiative, the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, issued a report criticizing the program's operation. USDA officials said many of the problems identified were the result of a hurried start-up phase and since have been fixed.
But GAO officials also noted that some other countries, particularly in the European Union, refuse to join with the program because it is dependent on surplus agricultural commodities. Because of that, some EU countries believe it isn't necessarily sustainable in the long run.
Some EU countries also contend the program is too simplistic because it focuses mainly on one thing - school lunches. “These countries think we have to have a more comprehensive approach to economic and social development,'' Mr. McGovern said. “But I'm inclined to take an incremental approach. If you've got something that works, why not move on it?''
Despite problems in funding, Mr. McGovern remains optimistic that the international school-lunch program can -and will - make a dent in reducing hunger among the world's children.
“I've given up on some things, like world peace. People have been killing each other since Cain and Abel and it doesn't seem like it's going to stop. But I think it's quite outrageous that we aren't able to wipe out hunger in the world,'' Mr. McGovern said. “I'm going to give a sizable amount of my time, for whatever years I have left, to try to get that done.''