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Bringing Democrats and Republicans Together over Food

William Lambers: In a hyper-partisan age, is there anything that can bring Democrats and Republicans together? Yes: fighting global hunger. Drawing on the history of the postwar Marshall Plan, Lambers argues that food policy must be the foundation of all foreign policy.
Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern.

Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern.

What is on America's wish list for the New Year? Well, having Democrats and Republicans working together instead of trading jabs would be a wonderful gift.

Before scrapping that wish as hopeless, consider one area where the two sides do have a history of working together: fighting global hunger. In fact, an international school meals program is named for former Democratic Sen. George McGovern and Republican Sen. Bob Dole.

As senators, McGovern and Dole had a history of working together on hunger issues, including developing the national school lunch program. As former senators, they continued this bipartisan spirit when they proposed to President Bill Clinton an international school meals program in 2000. The McGovern-Dole initiative was passed, and Congress appropriated $300 million to provide school meals in developing countries.

The two former presidential candidates are from the World War II generation, which well understood the relationship between food and peace abroad.

The immediate postwar era provides a striking example of bipartisanship. Remember the famous Marshall Plan that helped Europe rebuild after World War II? Before the reconstruction program could get under way, there had to be food aid for several European nations. This interim aid package passed the Congress with bipartisan support and sent much-needed food and supplies to Europe. One report called the food "ammunition for peace."

If the new Congress could cultivate that type of partnership once more, it could bring the two sides together over a critical, but often neglected, part of American foreign policy.

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Nearly 1 billion people suffer from hunger around the globe today. Hunger and malnutrition ravage Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, Haiti, and many other countries. If we want to help these countries gain or regain stability, it must start with adequate food supply.

As Secretary of State George Marshall said after World War II, "food is the very basis of all reconstruction; hunger and insecurity are the worst enemies of peace."

Democrats and Republicans could surely come together to realize that children overseas dying or being stunted in growth from malnutrition is not a recipe for peace, nor are the street children in Kabul sifting through the garbage for sustenance a benchmark of success in Afghanistan. Also, we cannot ignore the serious food needs of Pakistan as it recovers from massive flooding.

We should expect nothing less than for Republicans and Democrats to make the fight against hunger a foreign policy priority. They can and should come together over food.

This has to happen if we are to achieve any of our political objectives overseas. And it would be relatively inexpensive. A bailout of the world's hungry would cost but a fraction of the bailout of Wall Street.

Where should the Democrats and Republicans begin? They should increase annual funding levels for the McGovern-Dole program, which has languished since it got its start. Global hunger has fallen far off the radar in the U.S. government, and programs such as McGovern-Dole have suffered.

One problem is that there is no one in the U.S. government to lead the fight against hunger, someone to consistently remind people of suffering in far away lands. We have czars for many things in government, but not for global hunger. Competition for foreign policy dollars is fierce, and global hunger loses out frequently--even at a time when near-record numbers of people are malnourished.

This is where the Global Food Security Act comes in. Republican Sen. Richard Lugar and Democratic Sen. Robert Casey have co-sponsored this bill, so it has a foundation of bipartisanship to build on.

The Global Food Security Act calls for the creation of a food ambassador, or coordinator, to lead the multiple government agencies responsible for fighting global hunger. In addition, a food ambassador could help build the international cooperation needed for ending hunger. The U.S. can lead, but it cannot do the job alone.

There will always be politics and disagreement. But politics must not preempt a sound foreign policy. And nothing is more basic to foreign policy than food security for all nations. Surely Democrats and Republicans can agree with George Marshall's famous statement in 1947 outlining what came to be called the Marshall Plan: "Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."

William Lambers

William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World (2009).

william lambers

Republished with permission from the History News Service.