Searching for the next Bob Dole and George McGovern

The year is 2043. At a gala in Washington, D.C. retired Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and retired Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are scheduled to receive the World Food Program’s 29th annual Tom Harkin Humanitarian Award.

Sounds like political science fiction, right? In this day and age of partisan gridlock, one would be hard-pressed to imagine Paul’s and Ryan’s names mentioned in the same sentence as the retiring Tom Harkin – much less the two ascendant GOP leaders receiving an award in the progressive icon’s namesake.

But it always wasn’t so. Consider: on Dec. 11 in Washington, D.C., the World Food Program (WFP) – in real life -- honored former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) with its WFP USA George McGovern Leadership Award.

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Not only that, but the WFP is actually renaming the honor. Going forward, it will be known as the The McGovern-Dole Leadership Award, in recognition of the two senators’ pioneering efforts to feed the hungry both in the United States and around the world.

Some background is in order. Roughly four decades ago, in the 1970s, Dole and McGovern (now deceased) helped lead their respective caucuses on matters of agriculture and farm policy. Dole, a Republican from Kansas, and McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota, sought to increase the efficiency of food aid programs while at the same time providing a needed boost to farm economies.

Working across party lines, the two leaders left an indelible and unforgettable impact in the way we think about and address hunger issues in the U.S. and beyond. Indeed, Dole and McGovern influenced every major U.S. program designed to help feed hungry children. Examples, according to the WFP:

  • They helped reform what is known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). SNAP provides a nutritional safety net for 47 million Americans, nearly half of whom are children.
  • They worked together to expand the National School Lunch Program, which today feeds more than 31 million children in schools and child care centers.
  • They helped to establish the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides healthy food, nutritional information, and health care referrals to nearly 9 million low-income pregnant women, mothers, and young children who are at nutrition risk.

Dole and McGovern did so much to battle hunger and poverty – but increasingly, as income inequality becomes more of a problem in the U.S. and families struggle to recover from the 2008 recession, it is time once again to forge a Dole-McGovern-styled national bipartisan consensus around the issue of hunger and poverty in general, and childhood hunger in particular.

Across the country, 16 million kids – in big cities and small towns, in rural areas and exurbs and even suburbs – are at risk of going hungry. It’s a national emergency as much as it is a national disgrace – and it’s threatening our future.

When kids go hungry, they struggle to learn. When kids don’t learn, they struggle in life. When kids drop out of school or don’t go to college, their capacity to earn good wages suffers tremendously. What’s more, our workforce suffers – we already have a shortage of skilled workers in our country, and siphoning off even more talent from this pool will threaten our nation’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.

And it needn’t be this way. “The work of Senators McGovern and Dole was remarkable, not just for the good they did around the world, but for the way they did it,” writes Rick Leach, WFP USA’s president and CEO, in explaining why the group chose to honor Dole this week. “They worked across party lines, putting partisanship aside for the shared purpose of feeding the most vulnerable members of our global community.”

Dole and McGovern did so much to battle hunger and poverty. Rand Paul and Paul Ryan are young legislators looking to create their own legacy. Tom Harkin is retiring from the Senate after an illustrious career which included a commitment to hunger and agricultural issues.

As we look around, we must ask ourselves: Who is the next Bob Dole? Who is the next George McGovern? How will our leaders cross party lines to fight hunger in America?

Elliot is communications director of Fair Share, which stands for an America where everyone gets their fair share, does their fair share, and pays their fair share; and where everyone plays by the same rules.

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