03/19/2012 07:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rick Steves' Road Trip: Des Moines Honors Food (VIDEO)

After driving through rural Iowa -- the humble, hardscrabble towns, the golden hills and the quiet farms -- coming into Des Moines is like entering the Manhattan of corn country. It feels busy and cosmopolitan, like a completely different world.

While its shiny golden dome marks the state capitol, Des Moines feels like the capital of the agricultural world. Appropriately, it's the home of the World Food Prize. Dr. Kenneth Quinn, former US Ambassador to Cambodia, heads this organization inspired by hometown hero Dr. Norman Borlaug, who's considered the father of the so-called Green Revolution that dramatically boosted agricultural production worldwide.

Borlaug, who started out as an Iowa farm boy, designed a strain of wheat that overcame the famines that wracked India and Pakistan in the mid-1960s. Because of Borlaug's "miracle wheat," those once-hungry lands became robust exporters of food. Borlaug is known (especially here in Des Moines) as "the man who saved a billion lives" -- quite possibly more than any other person who has ever lived.

Knowing about my work with Bread for the World, the gracious hosts of my evening lecture, Iowa Public Television, organized a private tour of the newly renovated World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. I was guided by Ambassador Quinn himself, whom I had met here two years ago while attending the annual World Food Prize conference when my friend and president of Bread for the World, David Beckmann, received the award.

In the 1890s, the City Beautiful Movement was sweeping across the USA, and the people of Des Moines gave their city a stately set of Neoclassical buildings overlooking their river. With new parks and pedestrian-friendly zones playfully ornamenting a newly heightened levy, this part of town feels ready to bust into a boisterous future. The former library has recently been turned into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a palace celebrating heroes in the war against hunger.

The building is really as sumptuous and filled with symbolism as the great palaces I'm accustomed to seeing in Europe. But this is from the 20th centur, and all about food and Iowa. Under its awe-inspiring dome, four grand pillars each have a theme, celebrating the world's four great crops: wheat, corn, soy, and rice. Above, as if carved on an ancient Greek temple, a frieze trumpets the Norman Borlaug quote, "Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world."

Iowa really is enthusiastic about nourishment. The World Food Prize, awarded with great fanfare here each year, is considered the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture. The state is the birthplace of 4-H (the youth organization with more than six million members) and of Herbert Hoover. Although to many people, Hoover is most associated with the Great Depression and the unfortunate "Hooverville" shanty towns that popped up during his presidency, he's better remembered among Iowans and throughout Europe as the man who, earlier in life, had spearheaded the feeding of hundreds of millions of desperate people in the wake of World War I. During that war, Hoover popularized the slogan, "Food will win the war."

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates celebrates both Iowa and feeding the hungry. A highlight was visiting a mural in the basement painted by Harry Donald Jones and overseen by Grant Wood (the man who brought us American Gothic), originally created in the 1930s during the New Deal as part of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. The hard-hitting mural, with heavy socialist and worker's-party overtones (the kind of art right-wing governors in other states try to paint over these days), is entitled A Social History of Des Moines. After seeing this beautifully restored treasure, I left ready to sing the unofficial state anthem: the Iowa Corn Song.