After spending the semester learning about topics ranging from food production to the SNAP program, students in Clark University’s Politics of Food and Drink capstone seminar were paid a virtual visit from a guest speaker who has spent years focusing on food insecurity in America — Rep. Jim McGovern.
The longtime congressman last week attended the political science class via Zoom from Washington, D.C., where he was finishing a self-quarantine after a trip to New York. The visit gave students an opportunity to learn more about McGovern’s work as an outspoken advocate on Capitol Hill for the need to address poverty and hunger, and to ask questions on a variety of topics.
“It was probably the best class I’ve had this semester,” says Karla Kahale ’20. “He talked about a lot of important things we were learning in class, so to see them applied was really cool.”
Kahale has interned with McGovern’s office for the past two years and coordinated his virtual visit. McGovern had planned to visit Clark in person, but made alternate arrangements due to the outbreak of COVID-19. He spoke to the same class several years ago, which was a highlight of the semester, according to Heather Silber Mohamed, associate professor of political science.
Despite the virtual format, she says, this time was no different.
McGovern spoke with the students about the current challenges posed by the novel coronavirus, and in particular, the threat to many Americans posed by hunger and food security. He also talked about the need for a more holistic approach to hunger, including a national food policy, which the United States does not currently have. Most of his visit was spent answering student questions.
Jake Rosenthal ’20 says he and his peers were especially interested in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits — particularly, how people who are now unemployed will be able to use the program — as well as access to school lunches for children in low-income families. Rosenthal asked McGovern about how we can bring the topic of food policy more into the mainstream.
“He was very receptive to all the questions and gave very thorough answers,” Rosenthal says.
In addition to his role as the chairman of the Rules Committee, McGovern is a senior member of the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee, as well as the subcommittee on Nutrition and Oversight. He is also a leader in the bipartisan House Hunger Caucus and the Food is Medicine Working Group — roles Silber Mohamed say make him uniquely positioned to give students a policy-based perspective on the scholarly topics they explore throughout the semester.
Earlier in the year, the class read two op-eds written by McGovern about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and taking the SNAP Challenge. Many students also watched the movie, “A Place at the Table,” in which he makes several appearances.
“In some cases, his answers to questions surprised the students, who afterward noted differences between his responses and what they might have expected him to say based on academic readings we’ve done this semester,” Silber Mohamed says. “Exploring these contrasts helped to broaden students’ understandings of the complexity of these policy issues, as well as the politics involved in addressing them.”
McGovern spoke about his belief that food is a fundamental right, giving students concrete suggestions for ways that they can get involved in drawing attention to hunger as a political issue. Those ideas including posting on social media, writing letters to the editor, asking questions of political candidates, and organizing teach-ins when they’re back on campus.
“I was blown away by the number of questions that were asked,” Kahale says. “He really put the attention on the students. We all got to voice our opinion and ask questions, and he was incredibly honest.”