EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Responding to the Social Challenge: School Lunches for the Poor

For more than 50 years, every child in public school in the United States has had access to the school lunch program, ensuring one good meal each day. George McGovern and Robert Dole, both former members of the U.S. Senate agricultural committee, believe this program should be exported to the world's poorest countries.41

The U.S. national school lunch program was launched in 1946 largely as the result of data accumulated during the war showing that one third of the country's youths were physically unfit for military service, mainly because of a poor diet. In retrospect, there has been no denying the benefits of the national school lunch program that has continued uninterruptedly for 56 years. McGovern writes that shortly after he became director of the Food for Peace program in the early 1960s, the Dean of the University of Georgia called him to say that the school lunch program had done more to develop the South than any other federal program.42

The appeal of school lunch programs for children in other countries is even greater than in the United States because these children are hungrier. Children who are ill or hungry miss many days of school. And even when they are there, they do not learn as well. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, notes, "Sick children often face a lifetime of diminished productivity because of interruptions in schooling together with cognitive and physical impairment." But when school lunch programs are launched in low-income countries, school enrollment jumps. The children's attention span increases. Their academic performance goes up. Fewer days are missed from school, and children spend more years there.43

Girls benefit especially. Drawn to school by the lunch, they stay in school longer, marry later, and have fewer children. This is a win-win-win situation. Adopting this program in the 44 lowest-income countries would cost an estimated $6 billion per year beyond what the United Nations is now spending in its efforts to reduce hunger. Only one fourth of this, or $1.5 billion, need come from the United States, since other industrial countries would likely cover the remainder.44

George McGovern adds that "a women, infants and children (WIC) program, which offers nutritious food supplements to needy pregnant and nursing mothers," should also be extended into the poor countries. With 25 years of experience to draw on, it is clear that the U.S. WIC program has been enormously successful in improving nutrition, health, and the development of preschool children among the poor. If this were expanded to reach pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children in the 44 poorest countries, it would help to eradicate hunger among millions of small children at a stage in their lives when it could make a huge difference.45

These efforts are costly for sure, but not when compared with the annual losses in productivity from hunger. McGovern and Dole have worked together to create the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act. They have urged that $5 billion of the $40 billion appropriated by Congress to combat terrorism be used to assist U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the war against hunger. They acknowledge that better nutrition by itself will not end terrorism, but they do think that this initiative can help "dry up the swamplands of hunger and despair that serve as potential recruiting grounds for terrorists."46

Aside from the strategic benefits to the United States and, indeed, all industrial countries of having a better-fed, well-nourished population of young people in the developing world, hunger should be ended because the world can now afford to do so. In a world where vast wealth is accumulating among the rich, it makes little sense for children to be going to school hungry. To quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have enough; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."47

 Previous Table of Contents Next
41. George McGovern, "Yes We CAN Feed the World's Hungry," Parade, 16 December 2001; George McGovern, The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (New York: Simon & Schuster: 2001), chapter 1.

42. McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41.

43. Jeffrey Sachs, "A New Map of the World," The Economist, 22 June 2000; McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41.

44. McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Numbers hungry from U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002 (Rome: 2002); less than $6 per person per year calculated from cost to battle hunger in McGovern, Parade, op. cit. note 41, and U.S. population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; Roosevelt quoted in World Bank, World Development Report 2003 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 59.


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute