Tony Hall, just before leaving Congress in September, sat in his office in Longworth House Office Building and thought of something that had stuck with him since a trip to Appalachia. “I talked to mothers who lived in a trailer park, who told me their kids were excited when they brought home food,” he said. “And I thought, kids should be excited about Christmas or something, they shouldn’t be excited about getting food.”
For twenty-four years, Hall, a Democrat representing Dayton, Ohio, was one of the few people in Congress who not only found such things strange but actually thought Congress should do something about people who didn’t show up at the Thanksgiving table–or any other one. It was never what you’d call a widespread position, although an estimated 33 million Americans, along with 800 million people around the world, don’t get enough to eat. “You don’t have a spokesman for the poor in Congress,” Hall said. “They don’t have lobbyists, they don’t have PACs. Hunger is not something you see unless you’re looking for it. But they’re out there. They’re not dying in the streets, like they are in Africa, but they’re out there.”
Hall was chairman of the Congressional Select Committee on Hunger, and when its funding was cut in 1993, he fasted for three weeks until the House leadership agreed to set up a forum to discuss hunger, which later became the House Hunger Caucus. “If I was going to stay in Congress and look these people in the eye and not spit in it,” he said at the time, “I decided I’d better do something.” Afterward, he founded the Congressional Hunger Center. But after more than two decades in Congress, he said this summer, “We’re still a long way away from making a major dent. It is one of the issues that is solvable. This one we can solve. We know what to do. It comes down to political will.”
This fall, Hall became the Bush Administration’s ambassador to the United Nations International Food and Agriculture agencies in Rome, replacing former Senator George McGovern. It was, he said, time to do something different–but for someone who started as a Peace Corpsman in Thailand and has investigated hunger in Ethiopia and Korea, it’s not all that different. The question is, Who else in Congress will be thinking about kids who get excited when they have a chance to eat?
One Congressman who shares Hall’s interest has already learned what Hall did. “Hungry people don’t vote,” says Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, “and certainly hungry people around the world won’t have an effect on anyone’s political future.” Asked about Hall’s concerns about the disconnect between Congressmen and hungry people, even in their own districts, McGovern explains, “It’s either a disconnect or indifference. It’s laziness, a reluctance to engage, because they read something in a poll.” Still, McGovern–who started out on Capitol Hill as an aide in the office of (unrelated) Senator McGovern–is taking up the push for an international school lunch program, backed by both the original McGovern and Hall. “People ask, ‘What can we do to make the rest of the world like us?’ How about feeding them?”
Meanwhile, Hall is experiencing American indifference on the subject in a new way. In October, immediately after being sworn in, he headed for Southern Africa, where famine is threatening millions. Coverage of his trip appeared in England, Australia, China and Germany–but hardly anywhere in the United States. At the same time, some significant hunger gains made before Hall left Congress may be slowing down. The farm bill passed this past summer included notable expansions in food stamp eligibility, especially for as many as half a million legal immigrants cut off in the 1996 welfare overhaul. In a slumping economy, about 19 million Americans are in the program, and the new bill–and new money–are also expected to draw in more of the millions who qualify for food stamps but don’t get them. But just in time for Thanksgiving, Congress went home without passing an agricultural appropriations bill, and hunger activists fear that the new rules won’t fully take effect until the fiscal year is half over.
In Rome, Tony Hall will be disappointed. But probably not surprised.