10/23/2012 06:58 am ET

George McGovern: A Friend To The Hungry

NEW YORK (RNS) Former Sen. George McGovern was a friend to anyone who is concerned about the issue of hunger and malnutrition in the world.

As the one-time United Nations ambassador to the hungry, McGovern had always made battling hunger a top concern, even when the political winds did not favor that fight as a topical concern. But, unfortunately, as he knew better than anyone, hunger and malnutrition still must command our attention.

McGovern's death on Sunday (Oct. 21) at age 90 is indeed a sad moment for our nation, regardless of political persuasions. McGovern was someone who cared very deeply about people, cared about issues of injustice, cared about brokenness. He was committed to using the strength of his public service to bring healing and reconciliation.

I recall being with him in 2002, when he delivered a keynote address to some of our staff from Church World Service who were meeting in Daytona Beach, Fla. He was a huge supporter of our nationwide CROP Hunger Walks, which raise funds and awareness for food programs here in the U.S. and around the globe.

His talk anticipated our organization's plans for a multiyear Campaign to End Child Malnutrition in Africa.

"I hope someday we will be able to proclaim that we have banished hunger in the United States," he said, "and that we've been able to bring nutrition and health to the whole world."

He had just authored a book, "The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time." In it, he advanced a five-point plan for achieving this goal -- a goal that remains elusive but, we still believe, doable.

It wasn't any surprise that McGovern -- the longtime U.S. senator from South Dakota; U.S. Food for Peace director; 1972 Democratic presidential nominee; faithful United Methodist and World War II hero -- capped his long and distinguished career dealing with food issues.

He had served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization under President Bill Clinton and was later appointed by the U.N. as its international emissary to the hungry around the world.

But he was a special inspiration for us at Church World Service -- an organization that has deep roots and connections to the U.S. Midwest, which was an area of the country McGovern loved so much and cared about so deeply.

I credit McGovern's work and kind example for inspiring us to develop the idea of our School Safe Zones initiative in Africa, an idea we piloted in a number of schools in Kenya, now adopted as a strategy by the Kenyan government's Ministry of Education.

He was particularly important in advising us on the need for a school lunch program as part of that initiative. That was not a surprise, as he was a pioneering force behind the school lunch program here in the United States.

When he spoke to us back in 2002, McGovern said that a proposed $48 billion increase in military spending was a mistake and that we would be "better off" investing half of it in nutrition, health, education and the environment around the world.

In other words, George McGovern knew that "security" was bound up in how we feed and clothe the poor and hungry, not merely how well we armed militarily. More than ever, history has proven George McGovern right. We will miss him.

(John McCullough is president and CEO of the humanitarian group Church World Service.)