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McGovern vows to fight for global school lunch program

After learning Friday of a House Appropriations Committee plan to trim international food aid by $544 million this year, former Senator George McGovern (D-SD) told Agriculture.com Saturday that he plans to travel to Washington, DC, soon to urge friends in Congress not to cut nearly 30% from programs that help prevent starvation in nations that don’t grow enough food for their people.

McGovern contacted Agriculture.com after learning of the proposed cuts which would hit two programs:  Public Law 480, known as the Food for Peace Program, signed into law in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower is the biggest. The Obama Administration has asked Congress for $1.69 billion this year for PL 480. The other, smaller program is the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. The Administration’s request for it was $210 million.

“Millions of kids will be knocked out of the program. There’s no other way to look at it,” McGovern said in a telephone interview from St. Augustine, Florida, where he spends his winters.

McGovern and his friend, former Senator Bob Dole (R-Ks), had both left Congress when they teamed up to lobby for a new type of school lunch program that would encourage poor children in developing nations, especially girls, to stay in school. In many poor countries, young women don’t get an education, which is considered a factor in early marriage, large families and poor health for those women and their children.

The McGovern-Dole school lunch program was passed as part of the 2002 farm bill and is run by the USDA.

McGovern, who is 88, said he didn’t know if his friend, Bob Dole, would be well enough to actively lobby to save the program. Dole, who was badly injured in Army combat in Italy during World War II, was in the hospital most of last year and has recently returned home, McGovern said.

“Between the two of us, we have lots of friends in the Senate,”  McGovern said. “I can’t believe the Senate will swallow these cuts.”

McGovern said he plans to talk to Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader for the Democrats and a supporter of the program in the past. He’ll also enlist help in the House from Representative James McGovern (not related to George McGovern), who is one of the new Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee and a strong supporter of the international school lunch program.

The House Appropriations Committee proposal is just the first step in trying to get a spending bill passed. Congress failed to pass a budget for the current fiscal year that started last October and is operating under a continuing resolution at 2010 spending levels. It expires March 4. The committee’s recommendations for a broad range of spending cuts was rejected late last week by freshmen Republican members of the House, who forced the leadership to push for even deeper cuts, in order to meet a campaign pledge to trim federal spending by $100 billion this year. (The actual amount will be less because the fiscal year is partly over.)

The Appropriations Committee didn’t break down exactly how programs would be cut. But on Friday, the World Food Program USA and other food aid groups estimated that Food for Peace would be cut by $450 million and McGovern-Dole by about $100 million, nearly cutting that program in half.

Late Friday, House leaders released revised cuts to the continuing resolution that must be approved by early March to avoid a government shutdown. The latest version takes the full $544 million out of Food for Peace, and another $20 million out of McGovern-Dole. These cuts are compared to the Obama budget request that was never passed. The cuts are even bigger if compared to 2010 federal  spending on food aid which was boosted by supplemental appropriations. Compared to 2010, Food for Peace would be cut by $687 million and McGovern-Dole would be cut by $109 million.

For his part, McGovern thinks the House approach of cutting only nondefense discretionary spending is too narrow, leading to draconian cuts in other programs.

“Congress year after year appropriates increases in military spending. We’re at $700 billion – that’s more than all of the world combined,” McGovern said.

“The problem is that every state, including mine, South Dakota, has a military base or a large defense contractor that employs thousands of people,” McGovern said.

South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force base employs 20,000 people, he said. “Any member of Congress that doesn’t fight to keep that base is defeated.”

McGovern believes true national security is broader than defense spending. “I think food is part of our defense. I think health is part of our defense. I think science is part of our defense,” he said.

Hungry people in developing nations are more likely to be led by demagogues that threaten the U.S., he said.

He doesn’t think that hunger was a big factor in Egypt’s democratic revolution.

“Egypt is strong country. They have a school feeding program. There are numerous countries around the world where people just don’t have the energy to stay on the square day after day,” he said.

McGovern knows he’ll be called soft on defense for those views, but he doesn’t mind.

His own experiences as a bomber pilot in World War II are part of the bond he shares with Dole, but he counts himself lucky to have returned to Allied air bases after every bombing run.

“I was able to nurse the old crippled bomber back home,” he said. “Sometimes I had one engine out of four.”

McGovern also shares with Dole the distinction of running for president and getting walloped – something both men joked about when they shared the World Food Prize in 2008 in Des Moines, Iowa, for their work in getting the international school lunch program through Congress.

 McGovern still has the energy to fight for keeping  America’s leadership in international food aid. He celebrated his birthday last July 19 by jumping out of a plane at 18,000 feet on a tandem skydive.

“That’s how I celebrated my 88th birthday,” he said. “I’m catching up with Bush Senior.”  Former president George H.W. Bush went skydiving to mark his 85th birthday.

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