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Public Diplomacy Done Right with School Meals

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Judith McHale, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, goes to work every day with a legend. She uses the same office George Marshall did when he served as Secretary of State after World War II.

Marshall guided the U.S. war effort as Chief of the Army, and as Secretary of State he organized the recovery program for Europe known as the Marshall Plan. McHale calls the Marshall Plan “the greatest example in our nation’s history of Public Diplomacy done right.”

Food was what got the Marshall Plan started, in the form of an interim aid program in 1947-1948, and this is where public diplomacy came in.image of George Marshall on Time Magazine cover

In early 1948, posters and postcards were made highlighting a free supplementary meals program for Italy’s school children. Posters, sometimes created through art competitions, served as a way to inform the public of how American aid was benefiting Italy. The postcards were distributed throughout schools taking part in the meals program.

School feeding and public diplomacy were a perfect match during the Marshall Plan era, not only in Italy, but in Germany. General Lucius Clay thought school feeding was the most important public outreach we undertook to win the trust of the German people during reconstruction. Clay realized the school meals were going to change a generation for the better.

Our “school meals for peace” tradition, a staple during the Marshall Plan years, should be rolled out today as a foreign policy tool. Congress needs to get school feeding out of the trash can of recent budget cuts.

A good start would be restoring funding for the McGovern-Dole international school meals program. Then go forward, thinking of what works in peacemaking. Instead of just pouring mostly military aid into different countries, why not feed the children?

As McHale said in a speech at the Marshall Foundation last year, “What gave unassailable moral strength to the Marshall Plan was the fact that it was based on the simple but profound insight that what unites us all as humans is far more powerful and important than what divides us. That even after the wreckage and animosity of a world war, we could come together to build a better future … From Lexington to Lubumbashi, from Indianapolis to Islamabad, people everywhere share the same aspirations for their families and communities.”

Think of what people in other countries need. It’s not any different than people back in America. They want to see their children stay healthy, receive an education, and have hope for a future. School feeding gets at the heart of all three of these objectives.

It would be relatively inexpensive for the U.S., along with an international coalition, to work toward a global school lunch program. This is a global movement that is certainly within reach.

In Afghanistan, this means full rations for children, something that tragically has not been achieved. In flood-ravaged Benin, support is needed for the World Food Programme’s school feeding mission. In Haiti, the goal is a national school lunch program supported by local food producers.

In our troubled world today, we see people asking how we can improve America’s image around the world. Why not through more school meals? Instead of just slashing our international school meals budget as the House recently did, start thinking outside the box. Think of a lunch box.

About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.