WASHINGTON — At the annual Congressional Ball at the White House in early December, Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern strode toward President Biden to deliver a message more serious than season’s greetings.
Flanked by gold-trimmed Christmas trees in the Diplomatic Reception Room, the Worcester Democrat thanked him for the White House hosting a major hunger and nutrition conference that McGovern had essentially willed into existence. Then, he told the president that it wasn’t enough.
As he moved through clinking glasses and formal attire at the festive annual event, McGovern buttonholed other key officials, including Biden’s chief domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, to reiterate that only the federal government could help end hunger.
“I reminded them that … they have an ambitious plan, and we just need to get it done,” McGovern told hunger advocates in a conference call the following week.
A Washington veteran better known for his tactical maneuvering as outgoing chairman of the lower chamber’s gatekeeping body, the House Rules Committee, McGovern is deeply and visibly passionate about ending hunger in America. He relentlessly presses people of import on it in nearly every conversation, whether with the president, Cabinet secretaries, colleagues in Congress, or advocates.
“This is my obsession,” he said, matter of factly.
Rarely cast as a central political issue, the effort to feed the nation’s hungry is most often fixed on the America landscape at food kitchens and church pantries. But at a time when aid organizations are being pushed to the brink and food insecurity is growing, McGovern and advocates say the battle must be fought and won in Washington, with policies that measurably improve access to food.
And, through sheer political will and a mastery of the ways of the House, McGovern has scored meaningful accomplishments, including in the just-passed federal government spending package.
The $1.7 trillion bill includes a provision McGovern championed to allow the government to replace benefits to recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that are stolen by card skimmers and fraudsters. In another major victory, McGovern and others succeeded in getting permanent meal coverage during the summers for children who rely on free and reduced school lunches.
“Chairman McGovern is the ‘O.G.’ when it comes to addressing food insecurity,” Rice said in an e-mailed comment, using slang that refers to someone with credibility who was first on something.
McGovern’s pursuit of his abiding obsession has been at times unconventional. He wrangled a seat on the powerful House Agriculture Committee in 2011, despite coming from a state that ranks near the bottom in farm output, recognizing it as the most significant arena for hunger and nutrition policy. He also worked his way up to be chair of the Rules Committee, an oft-overlooked but powerful panel whose job is largely procedural but has no jurisdictional limits. That gives him power to hold hearings on any matter and he has used it to focus on hunger.
It was one of his political mentors, the late South Boston Representative Joe Moakley, for whom McGovern previously worked as a staffer, who told McGovern to take a spot on the Rules Committee.
“He said that you can do whatever you want on this committee, because everything comes to you, and so whatever your interests are, you can advance that,” McGovern recalled. “He also told me, ‘Someday you might be chairman — don’t do anything stupid, like run for Senate.’”
The 63-year-old McGovern’s passions on the subject took hold very early in his political career, as a staff member in the 1970s for former South Dakota Senator George McGovern (no relation), whose influence on the congressman continued as he rose through the ranks of House Democrats.
McGovern’s efforts on the issue, often behind the scenes, also speak to the complexity of tackling hunger. When the subject does come to the fore in Washington, the politics of hunger are often stripped down to a polarizing debate between those who believe it is a moral imperative for government to feed the hungry and those who sweat the dollars and cents of funding federal programs.
Nearly 34 million people in the country are food insecure, or lack reliable access to adequate food for their household, according to the US Department of Agriculture, including 5 million children. That equates to roughly one in 10 households in America.
Indeed, after decades of trying, McGovern has no expectation that hunger can be wiped away overnight. But he is always looking for even incremental changes, and believes the pandemic brought more awareness to the problem and provided a rare opportunity to make a more sizable dent.
Held in September, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was a significant first step, where the Biden administration set a goal to end hunger and improve Americans’ dietary health by 2030. It was the first such event tackling the issue in a comprehensive way since 1969 and came about after years of pushing by McGovern. He also got $2.5 million for the conference into federal budgets.
But unless there is dedicated follow-up on the conference’s action plan, McGovern said it won’t matter much.
“The blueprint that they put out there is, I love it: It’s doable, it’s achievable,” McGovern said. “But if we don’t do this stuff, then it’s just a nice document with nice thoughts in it.”
McGovern grew up middle class in Worcester, the son of a store owner and dance teacher. Having enough to eat was never a problem. Cooking and diet wasn’t a central focus of the family, he said, joking about Twinkies and Coke for breakfast, and dinners like fish and chips and hot dogs.
In middle school, he knocked on doors for the elder McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, drawn to him as a veteran-turned-peace-activist and progressive, and interned in his office from 1977 to 1980. It was there that Jim McGovern’s eyes were opened to the scope of the problem and the potential to make a difference. He continued to work closely with the former senator on the issue in later years as a congressional staffer and then as a member of Congress himself.
His mentor is never far from Representative McGovern’s mind. He has a signed copy of the former senator’s 2001 book, ‘The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time,’ on his desk in Washington, and he helped create the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program supporting children in developing countries in the senator’s honor. It recently secured unanimous bipartisan support in the House.
But it’s people he meets in his job that most seem to fuel McGovern’s commitment. He recalled that it was only a week after first being sworn into Congress, in 1997, that a family came to his local office looking for help finding food, the first of many such encounters over the years.
“You see these children, and that does break your heart,” McGovern said. “Like, ‘why are we allowing this to happen? And why isn’t this more of a national priority?’”
Boston Representative Ayanna Pressley, who has also worked on food insecurity issues, said what truly sets McGovern apart is the way he draws from everyone he meets along the way.
“Hunger is a humanitarian crisis and is a global issue, but I think what he brings to it is centering the humanity and dignity of every person impacted by this crisis,” Pressley said. “It’s that granular focus, never forgetting these stories, these lived experiences. He’s always carrying them in his heart and in his advocacy.”
McGovern has made plenty of bipartisan allies on hunger, but he has also found himself at the center of contentious battles over policies to fight it. The issue his mentor easily worked on across the aisle began to become highly polarized in the 1980s as Republicans complained of “welfare queens” taking advantage of anti-hunger entitlement programs such as SNAP. That has continued in waves through the years as Republicans have focused on reducing government spending in part by targeting government assistance to struggling Americans.
Negotiations will soon begin on the next five-year Farm Bill, a critical vehicle for anti-hunger programs, and major funding battles are expected with Republicans who will control the House beginning in January. McGovern vowed to fight any Farm Bill that doesn’t include funding or policy to end hunger and advance nutrition.
Representative Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is likely to be the next chair of the Agriculture Committee and has long worked with McGovern on the issue.
“Jim’s a champion for nutrition,” Thompson said, adding that he believed there is plenty of room for bipartisan agreement in the Farm Bill. But he was critical of the White House conference, largely because he didn’t receive an invitation until 48 hours prior, which he called “bad form.”
And he noted his requirements for food programs include “independence” and “integrity” — buzz words that usually connote Republicans’ desire to impose more requirements on participants or limit the eligibility.
Supporters of SNAP say it already has stringent requirements and oversight, and Republican attempts to further tighten it are just a way to cut the benefits. But it’s an uphill battle. The Child Tax Credit that Democrats passed into law during the pandemic reduced food insufficiency by 19 percent, according to a Columbia University study, and promoted healthy eating while not impacting participation in the workforce, the left-leaning Brookings Institution found. But despite the positive data, the program has lapsed without even full support from Democrats, let alone Republicans, and faces slim odds of coming back.
Luis Guardia, of the Food Research and Action Center, said McGovern pushes the advocacy community as much as he pushes Congress and the White House, looking for every avenue to make change.
On a Zoom call in December with advocates and Massachusetts elected officials, McGovern debriefed them on the conference and brainstormed ways they could move the ball forward. He did not mince words.
He urged them not to wait for Congress, to instead proceed with their own initiatives, such as universal free school meals, and press the administration of incoming Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey to make progress on hunger.
“Don’t wait for Congress before we act, because Congress, even under the best of circumstances, we move too goddamn slow,” McGovern said. “We just need to go.”