From the Left



Hunger Pain: Jim McGovern Prods America to Get Food on Everyone's Table

Jeff Robbins on

The slow-motion train wreck that was last week's selection of a Republican speaker of the House almost certainly drove America's regard for Congress to new lows, assuming that's possible. Televised internecine warfare within the GOP featured battling among the crazies, the phonies and the insurrectionists, once again recalling Henry Kissinger's line about the Iran-Iraq War: "It's a pity that one side had to win."

Amidst the dispiriting display it was easy to forget that there are plenty of gems in Congress who've spent careers fighting fights of real significance, often unheralded. Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern, now leaving his powerful post as chair of the House Rules Committee, combines an insider's knowledge of House procedures with an outsider's passion for the excluded. His signature issue during his 13 terms in Congress has been ending hunger in America, which decade in and decade out remains the cause of suffering for staggering numbers of Americans, consigned to third-class status in the planet's wealthiest nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 34 million Americans, including 5 million children, lead lives of what is characterized as "food insecurity," with uncertain access to food sufficient to meet basic nutritional needs, or just flatly unable to obtain that nutrition. Asked how it is that this can be given America's historic resources, McGovern replies: "Lack of political will. We have the money, we have the food, we have the infrastructure. But without the political will, you have tens of millions of people hungry in America."

Inspired by the bipartisan example of Democratic Sen. George McGovern (no relation) and Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who spearheaded groundbreaking legislation to reduce hunger in the 1970s, Jim McGovern has partnered with numerous Republican colleagues to vitalize, reinforce, supplement, reform and expand programs to make food -- and, specifically, healthy food -- available to those for whom it isn't. Along the way he has buttonholed members of the executive branch, held hearings, convened conferences and inserted amendments in legislation, all in service of militating on behalf of the undernourished.

He has long been focused on getting the funding to state and local governments as well as the highly consequential nonprofit sector, convinced that they are often the best positioned to meet needs where they are located -- often needs that are more complex than meet the non-expert eye. When it comes to getting food to those who don't have it and don't have the means of getting it, McGovern says, "there are good and very effective models that are springing up all over the country that government should embrace. A one size glove doesn't fit all."


For all of its vaunted status as a center of higher education, financial services, health care and high tech, Massachusetts has failed abjectly to ensure that its citizens have access to nutrition. According to the non-profit Project Bread, nearly 17% of Massachusetts households suffer from food insecurity, more than double the pre-pandemic rates. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, whose focus on food security is steeped in both personal experience and public policy knowledge, has established two offices to fill nutritional gaps in the city. The Mayor's Office of Food Justice and GrowBoston, her office for promoting urban food production, employ a range of targeted approaches to connecting people with food and vice versa in ways that illustrate McGovern's "one size doesn't fit all" observation.

But as McGovern knows as well as anyone in Washington, eliminating the nutrition gap can't be left to the resourcefulness of localities, or be permitted to fall victim to weary rhetoric about "welfare." Food insecurity isn't only a matter of unacceptable suffering; it also saps the strength of American society. Whether or not the nutrition deficit is at long last eliminated will drive whether we succeed or fail to educate our children, whether health care costs are contained or continue to surge, and whether the country coheres or keeps on fracturing. Jim McGovern's been right about this for a long time.


Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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