What is the greatest gift you have ever received? For Thomas Awiapo, it was the gift that saved his life.
Thomas was orphaned at age 10 in the African nation of Ghana, where poverty is high. Thomas and his siblings, left on their own, struggled with hunger. He remembers well the pain of going to bed every night on an empty stomach. Two of his siblings perished from the terrible hunger they experienced.
Thomas had no future until he stumbled upon a school Catholic Relief Services (CRS) had built.
There he got food, a snack and a hot lunch. Thomas would come for the meals and then plan how to escape school. He had no interest in learning but he always came back to the school because of the food which was saving his life. Thomas says CRS tricked him into coming to school with the food.
Eventually Thomas became not only well fed but also well educated.
Now Thomas has a master’s degree and works closely with Catholic Relief Services in Ghana, helping others overcome poverty. He gives presentations on the power of school meals, which he said was the greatest gift he ever received. The food at school broke the cycle of poverty he was destined for.
That is why Thomas was in Washington DC recently talking to members of Congress about supporting the McGovern-Dole international school meals program.
The McGovern-Dole initiative, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, funds school meals overseas through charities like Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and the World Food Programme.
The plan was named after former senators George McGovern and Bob Dole. These two WWII veterans were very influenced by the scenes of hunger they witnessed in Europe. They both dedicated their careers to fighting hunger at home and abroad.
Both McGovern and Dole carried on the Spirit of the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe after World War II. Before the Marshall Plan even took place school meals were being provided by the United States in many countries including Germany and Japan.
The U.S. Interim Aid program to Europe in 1947, along with the Lira Fund, provided over one million children in Italy with school meals.
School meals mattered for the war-torn countries as they do today for nations in peril. In conflict-torn Mali, Catholic Relief Services feeds around 72,000 children school meals with McGovern-Dole funding.
Recent interviews have also documented the importance of McGovern-Dole schools meals in Haiti, Laos, Guatemala and Sierra Leone. In drought-affected Ethiopia, UN World Food Program spokesperson Leighla Bowers says around 272,000 children are receiving school meals thanks to McGovern-Dole funding. There are many other areas in need that could benefit from McGovern-Dole funding if the program were expanded.
The civil war in Syria has left children hungry and displaced. The World Food Programme (WFP) has school feeding for at least half a million Syrian school children, and hopefully more with enough funding. The WFP program includes food, milk and sometimes fresh fruits and vegetables. This nutrition can help save Syrian children who may be left stunted by hunger.
We need to help WFP, Catholic Relief Services and others proving school meals abroad. We can do so by funding and expanding McGovern-Dole to build a global school lunch program.
We can do so country by country like in Haiti where McGovern-Dole is helping WFP provide school meals. We must keep up this support until Haiti reaches its goal of a national school lunch program.
WFP had plans to develop a national school lunch program in Yemen, which is now mired in civil war. Whatever peace plan hopefully emerges there should include school meals.
Increasing funding for McGovern-Dole will not be easy. The Trump administration already proposed eliminating the program in its first budget proposal. Congress will likely not go along with such a drastic and tragic cut. What the public can do is encourage Congress to increase funding for McGovern-Dole.
In a normal year McGovern-Dole might get 200 million in funding, which is relatively a very tiny part of the federal budget. Why not increase this amount to 300 million in funding for the next fiscal year so to provide more school meals abroad. With the Farm Bill upcoming, McGovern-Dole funding could be increased in that legislation as well.
Thomas Awiapo says that one act of kindness, a simple school meal, saved his life. It was liberation from his suffering as he described it. We can liberate children from hunger and give them a chance to succeed. That is the power of school meals and why every child should receive this precious gift.