When former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern put their heads together to start a program for feeding hungry school children in the late 1990s, they probably never expected to one day sit in the Iowa state capitol and receive a check for a quarter of a million dollars.
But life has taken some funny turns for the two men, both of whom ran unsuccessful campaigns for president and are better known for things besides launching a program that has provided more than 22 million meals to children in 41 countries.
Both men are veterans of World War II — McGovern a bomber pilot who flew numerous combat missions and Dole a combat infantryman who spent 14 months in a military hospital recovering from wounds received in northern Italy — who took decidedly different paths when they launched their political careers.
Those paths — McGovern liberal and Dole conservative — were credited for helping them achieve the bipartisan support needed to push their McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program through Congress in 2000.
The legislation and what it has accomplished in the eight years since its passage led to McGovern and Dole being named 2008 World Food Prize Laureates and sharing the $250,000 award that goes with the prize, which was established by Normal Borlaug, a native Iowan and winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
“Senator McGovern and Senator Dole worked across party lines toward a common goal to eradicate hunger,” said Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. “By reviving and strengthening global school feeding, nutrition and education programs, they have transformed countless lives around the globe.”
Dole, whose reputation for gruffness may not have helped in his bid for the presidency, became emotional during the World Food Prize festivities in Des Moines, remembering how he had worked to help elderly residents of his home town of Russell, Kan., as a young county attorney in the 1950s.
“That helped me never forget how some people have it rough,” he said.
During the World Food Prize ceremony at the Iowa state capitol, Dole and McGovern literally reached across an aisle to hold hands when their names were called for the presentation, symbolically erasing the partisan barrier that sometimes separate liberals and conservatives.
“I’m deeply honored to be here with my friend, Senator McGovern,” said Dole. He ended his brief remarks by reciting the poem, “The Dash,” which describes the importance of the years of a person’s life represented by the dash between the dates of their birth and their death.
McGovern burst into a verse of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” with many in the audience of more than 700 softly singing along.
“The beautiful thing about the hunger issue is that it is soluble,” he said. “I used to think that it didn’t matter how long a person lived. Now that I’ve lived to be 86, I no longer agree with that. But I hope to live long enough to see every schoolchild in the world fed.”
In the late 1990s, McGovern and Dole worked with President Bill Clinton to establish a pilot program to provide poor children throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe with school meals.
A two-year pilot program, the Global Food for Education Initiative, was established in 2000. Based on the success of the pilot, in 2002 Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program (known as the McGovern-Dole Program).
The McGovern-Dole Program has spurred increased commitments from donor countries for school feeding and has renewed support from development leaders. The G8 and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) have listed school feeding as a specific intervention in their action plans for poverty alleviation, and the UN Millennium Project included school feeding as one of its 10 key recommendations for achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Because hungry children have difficulty learning, the McGovern-Dole Program has had a remarkable educational impact, said Quinn. In addition to increasing school enrollment, school-feeding programs have been shown to improve cognition and overall academic performance and overcome gender inequalities in literacy and access to education. While young girls in developing countries are often kept out of school to work in the home, they are much more likely to be allowed — even encouraged — to enroll in schools with feeding programs.
The success of the program has led to dramatically increased international support for the expansion of school-feeding operations in developing countries around the world. As one example, the UN World Food Program’s school-feeding operations have nearly doubled since 2001; in 2006 alone, it fed more than 20 million children in 74 countries.
“Senators McGovern and Dole are tireless champions in the battle against hunger, and are an enormous inspiration,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program. “They have given millions of children a chance to dream — and to live healthy lives — through school feeding.”
Since 1986, when the World Food Prize was conceived by Borlaug, it has honored outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world. Previous laureates have been recognized from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Denmark, India, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States.