- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

President Clinton wants to be remembered for being a leading force in the creation of a multibillion-dollar international school lunch program like the federal program that subsidizes meals in U.S. schools.

"The president gave us the green light to go out and develop this program," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced at a nutrition summit last month, co-sponsored by his department and the Department of Health and Human Services. Mr. Glickman's comments received scant media attention at the time.

Said former Sen. George McGovern, a liberal Democrat who pitched the idea of a global school lunch program to Mr. Clinton and senior administration officials at a May 26 meeting in Washington:

"It was clear the president and his staff were very impressed with the idea… . I think we'll get a positive affirmation [from the White House] next month."

Contrary to initial press reports, the worldwide lunch program would be run by the United Nations, not the United States, Mr. McGovern, U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, said in a telephone interview last week.

As for its cost, he said, "Anything the U.N. does, the U.S. pays 25 percent. I estimate this program will cost a total of $3 billion for the first two years, so we'd pay $750 million."

"That's not chump change. That's a lot of money," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

The U.S. contribution for the proposed international school lunch program "would come largely in the form of commodities" the government would purchase from farm surpluses for shipment overseas to Third World nations, said Mr. McGovern, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota and unsuccessful 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.

Mr. Feehery wonders if the proposed global school lunch program won't duplicate funding efforts already in existence.

"We already have a program that sends [farm] commodities to those countries" where hunger is rampant, he said.

In fiscal 2000, Mr. Feehery said, the Agency for International Development's budget included $56.5 million for a school feeding program that provided food commodities to 21 different countries.

Apparently fearful Congress might be resistant to providing free lunches to much of the world, Mr. Clinton asked Mr. Glickman at last month's meeting if he is "authorized to buy surplus commodities in the market without congressional approval," Mr. McGovern recalled.

He said the president was told Mr. Glickman could approve some purchases without the approval of Congress.

Said Mr. Feehery: "The president obviously wants to spend a lot of taxpayers' money. Congress has a constitutional role to oversee it … we're trying to keep our budgets balanced."

Mary Beth Schultheis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, insists that the department is merely "taking a look" at the McGovern proposal, and that the examination is "very much at a preliminary stage." She says no decisions have been reached as to the cost or feasibility of the program, although she acknowledges the department is "seriously considering it."

Asked if he believes the cost of the global program will ever exceed the $6 billion the federal government spent last year for subsidized lunches for 27 million U.S. schoolchildren, Mr. McGovern said, "it's possible," but not likely.

"School lunches in developing countries cost 12 to 15 cents a meal, while U.S. school lunches cost a little over $1.20 a meal," said the U.S. ambassador, who is a representative to the World Food Program, the U.N. agency that would be responsible for distributing the free or reduced-price food.

Mr. McGovern said the United Nations has determined that 300 million school-age children throughout the world are chronically hungry.

"About 130 million of those children are not in school, and most of them are girls," he said.

He believes school attendance will increase sharply in Third World nations once children learn they will be fed in school. The greatest needs are in Asia and Africa, he said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, also believes the idea "has merit" but needs to find out more about it.

Paying for it is also a key concern of other Republicans on the committee, such as Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia.

"We really have to look at the cost … and how on earth we would foot the bill for something of this magnitude," said Donna King, spokeswoman for Mr. Coverdell.

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