In all of the eulogies for former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who died Sunday, many spoke of his 1972 campaign for president and opposition to war.
But McGovern left another legacy — his work as a tireless advocate for the hungry, work that can be traced to his early days on the prairies of South Dakota. During the Great Depression, when McGovern was a child, his family provided food to young men in need.
"They were riding the rails, as we said in those days, looking for work," McGovern recalled in a 2001 interview with MPR News. "And they were downright hungry. My father and mother never once turned them down in terms of food assistance, so I guess that's where that practice began in my life."
McGovern would witness more extreme suffering as a bomber pilot in World War II. When he saw starving Europeans, he thought about the surplus food on South Dakota farms that could help feed the world.
He got his first chance to do something about it in the early 1960s while running for Senate and traveling with then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in South Dakota. As McGovern told it, Kennedy gave a "lousy" speech to farmers, prompting him to deliver some timely advice.
"I think you should throw that manuscript away; it's no good anyway," McGovern would say years later at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis, when recounting their conversation. "Why don't you just walk out there on that stage and say, 'food is hope, food is health, food is strength, food is peace.' "
Kennedy took his advice, and when he won the presidency, he appointed McGovern director of Food For Peace, which sends agricultural commodities to poor areas of the world. McGovern continued to fight world hunger for decades, often teaming up with former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, with whom he shared the 2008 World Food Prize for an international school feeding program.
In 1998, he was appointed the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He later became the U.N.'s ambassador on world hunger.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, have been fed around the world thanks to McGovern.
"He made permanent differences in our country and around the world," said David Beckmann, president of the Bread For the World, a group that works to end hunger. "So, we have gradually reduced world hunger over the last 20 or 30 years. That is partly because of George McGovern."
Moved by the CBS documentary "Hunger in America" in 1968, McGovern was also instrumental in developing nutrition programs that alleviated hunger in the United States. In a 2007 interview on CSPAN, McGovern recalled watching as a camera moved in on a young boy who wasn't eating at school.
"He kind of dropped his gaze to the floor and he said, 'I'm ashamed,' "
McGovern recalled. "And the reporter said — 'well, why is that?' And he says, 'because I haven't got any money.' I remember saying to two of my daughters who were watching the program, 'you know, it's not that little guy who should be ashamed. It's George McGovern, a United States senator.' "
Shortly thereafter, McGovern became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which for a decade conducted studies and hearings, some carried on national television. It detailed extreme hunger in the United States — the kind many people thought didn't exist.
The committee's work marked a turning point in the fight against hunger in the nation, said Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center. It led the federal government to create new nutrition programs, including Women Infants and Children, while also expanding food stamps and school lunch programs.
McGovern, Cooney said, was the force behind those nutrition programs.
"They all had one father, and he was George McGovern," Cooney said. "And he did it just simply by moral authority."
When it came to hunger, the former senator truly believed that the world could end hunger, said Beckmann, who knew him for 20 years.
"Mainly he argued — and I believe — it's mainly the lack of organized give a damn," Beckmann said. "And George McGovern gave a damn."
Even late into his life, McGovern continued to advocate for policies he believed would eliminate the problem.
"He really wanted to see the day," Beckmann said. "He was getting tired, but he wanted to live long enough to see the day."
The McGovern family encouraged donations to Feeding South Dakota in remembrance of the former senator. In South Dakota, nearly 13 percent of households still struggle with hunger.