Congressman Jim McGovern
Leading the fight against hunger
BY MICHAEL FLOREAK / PHOTO ADAM DETOUR
Representative Jim McGovern takes to the floor of Congress almost every week to speak on just one subject: hunger. The 10-term Democratic congressman from Worcester has delivered dozens of speeches on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food banks, the Farm Bill, teen hunger, childhood nutrition and other subjects that might otherwise be easy for his colleagues to ignore.
For McGovern, finding political solutions to hunger is important enough to have its own Facebook page, YouTube channel and hashtag: #EndHungerNow.
McGovern grew up in Worcester, the son of successful small-business owners. Hunger was not part of his day-to-day experience. But since his election to Congress, it has been an important part of his political agenda. The Representative from Massachusetts’ second congressional district sits on the Agriculture Committee and is the ranking Democratic member on the Subcommittee on Nutrition.
“If you ever see a hungry child—and I’ve seen a lot of them in my own congressional district over the years—it breaks your heart,” McGovern says. “It doesn’t have to be. And yet it exists.”
Last fall, the James Beard Foundation recognized McGovern’s two decades of work on hunger by giving him one of its 2016 Leadership Awards. In its announcement, the foundation said, “McGovern regularly champions the nearly 50 million Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and don’t have super PACs and powerful lobbyists working on their behalf.”
From his Worcester office in the latter half of 2016, Congressman McGovern talked about hunger, his annual tour of Massachusetts farms, and the James Beard award.
Q. How did hunger become such an important initiative for you?
A. When I was in college in the late 1970s, I interned in the office of Senator George McGovern; no relation, but I liked his name and I like what he stood for. We became really close friends. He was on a Special Select Committee on Hunger and Nutrition, and I sat through many hearings and went to many forums with him as he talked about this issue. Then I was elected to Congress and I was amazed in the first month how many people came into my office in Worcester who were looking for food—families, young people, elderly people. And then I began to tour some of the schools after getting elected and talked to teachers who told me there were kids who came to class on Monday who probably hadn’t eaten anything over the weekend and couldn’t concentrate. There’s not a congressional district in the United States of America that’s hunger free.
Q. Why does it remain such a major problem?
A. I think hunger is a political condition. I think we have the money and the resources and the know-how to solve it. We just don’t have the political will. This is a solvable problem. But our political leadership hasn’t prioritized it in a way that we’ve eliminated it. I give a speech on the House floor virtually every week on the issue. I try to raise awareness, highlight innovative approaches to battling hunger and shame some of my colleagues into doing more to help solve the problem.
Q. What are the misconceptions about hunger that you battle?
A. One is that when you talk about hunger, some people think that means children with sunken eyes and swollen bellies. That is hunger. But hunger is also kids who have missed meals on a regular basis. It’s senior citizens who take medication on an empty stomach when the bottle says take it with a meal, and end up in an emergency room. It’s women who lack good nutrition, who end up giving birth to children with all kinds of physical challenges. It’s workers who can’t concentrate at work because they’re missing meals on a regular basis. It’s every age group.
I think one of the problems in Washington is that there’s an ignorance, if you will, about what the reality is. If you listen to speeches on the House floor in Washington, you think that all people need to do is get a job and they won’t be hungry any more, or if they’re hungry it’s because they’re lazy. The perception and the rhetoric in Washington doesn’t match the reality that exists in this country of people who are struggling in poverty and are working awfully hard, either working a job somewhere or just working to figure out where they can get some food to put on the table for their kids.
Quite frankly, the benefits that government provides people who are hungry, who are poor, are inadequate. The SNAP benefit is woefully inadequate. It is on average $1.40 per person per meal per day. That’s why most SNAP recipients by the middle or end of the month are lined up at food banks.
Q. What concerns did you hear from this year's farm tour?
A. This has been a tough year for farmers. Farmers who grew peaches lost their crop due to the freeze. Farmers are experiencing a difficult time because of the drought. A lot of people are struggling. It’s interesting that every farmer that I meet with believes that climate change is a factor in our weather patterns. By contrast, if you go to Washington, D.C., you’ll be tripping over congressmen who deny that climate change even exists, or is even a problem.
We talked about ways to try and help alleviate some of the financial hits that [farmers have] taken, whether or not it’s a possibility that there might be some emergency assistance coming out of Washington. I believe there should. One of the things that I heard is they’re selling things. They’re getting more and more loans. But what they don’t need is more loans because they can barely afford to pay back what they’ve already taken out. What they need is loan forgiveness or outright grant assistance to respond to this disaster.
Q. How have farmers’ concerns changed over the 20 years you've been doing this tour?
A. Climate change is one issue. The issue of immigration has come up quite a bit and the difficulty of getting seasonal workers and the difficulty that they face because we don’t have comprehensive immigration reform. Also, dairy farmers are facing a difficult time because of the low cost of milk. A lot of the dairy farms that we visited have decided to get into other things other than just the normal production of milk. I went to one dairy farm that now specializes in raw milk. They can get more for raw milk than they can for regular milk.
One of the things about farmers, especially in Massachusetts, is they have to constantly reinvent themselves based on the changing markets and changing desires of consumers and all kinds of other factors. It’s not enough to be a farmer. You have to be a businessperson. You have to be an innovator and an inventor and someone who’s good at promotion and public relations. It’s a real challenge.
What I do appreciate is that these farmers at the end of the day can point to something that they’ve helped produce, whether it’s fruits or vegetables or meat or milk, or what have you. Their labor produces something. In Congress, we can be in session seven days a week, 24 hours a day, working around the clock and oftentimes at the end of the week I can point to nothing that we’ve accomplished.
Q. Do you think Congress understands the plight of small farmers?
A. I don’t, quite frankly. I think for a lot of people in Washington, when they think of agriculture they think of the Midwest or the West. In Washington, when we talk about farm policy, we should be talking about a 50-state farm policy. I think it’s important that all 50 states have an agricultural base. I also view it as a national security issue. I think it’s important that we grow as much food here as we can.
Q. Where would you begin to correct this problem?
A. I have been urging for the past eight years that the president put together a White House conference on food, nutrition and hunger, and bring in the heads of our food banks, our school principals, our teachers, our doctors, our nurses, people who are on SNAP, people who are struggling in poverty, people who have innovative approaches to dealing with hunger, business people, nutritionists, philanthropists, anybody who has any potential role in helping solve this problem.
Bring them together and basically connect all the dots and make our programs work in a way that actually helps solve this problem. The SNAP benefit is inadequate and should be adjusted. We need to expand our summer feeding programs for our kids because in the summer months you see a spike in hunger.
We need to look at innovative approaches to getting people good nutritious food, like the Daily Table in Dorchester. It’s an incredible model that quite frankly should be replicated all over the country. Figuring out ways to better do this so that people aren’t falling through the cracks. I think what we’re lacking in this country is just a plan. I think people smarter than me can put it all together.
Q. Were you surprised to hear that you had won a James Beard Foundation award?
A. Yeah, and I’m not even a chef. I’m deeply honored. I have to confess that I feel uneasy with getting recognition or awards, and it’s not because I’m a humble guy. It’s just because I feel like we haven’t done enough yet to merit that. I’m also honored to have gotten to know a lot of our nation’s leading chefs, people like Tom Colicchio and José Andrés. There’s a whole long list of them that I’ve worked with on various hunger-related issues over the years. Chefs have emerged at the forefront of this battle against hunger and this call for better nutrition. It’s really exciting to see them in action. They have helped move the needle forward on this issue greatly.
Q. How will you continue the fight against hunger?
A. One of the things I try to emphasize to my colleagues is doing nothing shouldn’t be an option. Doing nothing is costly. Avoidable healthcare costs. Lack of productivity in the workplace. Kids who can’t learn in school. All this adds up. There are people who are not moved by the human plight of someone who’s hungry, and all they care about is the bottom line. They should do more to help solve this problem because it’s costing this country dearly.