McGovern, local anti-hunger advocates hopeful following White House conference

  • U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern talks with Kirsten Levitt, of Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield, on Wednesday at the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health since 1969. COURTESY PHOTO/MATTHEW BONACCORSI

  • From left, state Rep. Hannah Kane, state Sen. Jo Comerford, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, and state Rep. Andy Vargas on Wednesday, at the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health since 1969. COURTESY PHOTO/MATTHEW BONACCORSI

  • From left, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, White House domestic policy advisor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, on Wednesday at the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health since 1969. COURTESY PHOTO/MATTHEW BONACCORSI

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 5:08:29 PM

When U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern issued a call to help end hunger in the nation by 2030 during this week’s White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, he was joined by not only President Joe Biden, but several of Pioneer Valley residents.

McGovern invited state Sen. Jo Comerford, Christopher “Monte” Belmonte of WRSI 93.9 The River, and Kirsten Levitt of Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield to the White House summit that welcomed anti-hunger and health care stakeholders from across the country. The first — and only other — White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was hosted by President Richard Nixon in 1969, with McGovern leading a bipartisan bill to ensure another conference was held.

“It was a great, great thing. It really was,” McGovern said in an interview Friday morning. “We’ve had a president of the United States make it clear that ending hunger and providing nutritious food for people is a national priority. People were incredibly excited and positive about the entire day and, I think, left hopeful.”

Belmonte, who lives in Turners Falls and works in Northampton, was invited by McGovern due to his anti-hunger efforts through the Monte’s March fundraiser that benefits the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The 13th rendition of the event, which McGovern has participated in, is slated for shortly before Thanksgiving.

“He personally called and said I should (go), and I’m very glad that I did,” Belmonte said. “It was a powerful experience to be there and see (people) give Congressman McGovern a longer standing ovation than the president of the United States. His wife was in tears when they got that standing ovation.”

Belmonte said his favorite line came from U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, who said, “We need to put the F back in FDA,” referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the volume of “massively processed foods” that often make up a disproportionate amount of low-income Americans’ diets and can lead to strains on the health care system.

Belmonte mentioned he is pleased it appears the summit’s message has not been overshadowed by a gaffe committed by Biden, who asked the whereabouts of U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, of Indiana. A Republican friend and colleague of McGovern, Walorski was killed along with two staffers in a head-on collision in August that also killed the other vehicle’s driver. She had championed the bill requiring the conference.

Levitt, executive chef and director of Greenfield’s Stone Soup Cafe, also accepted McGovern’s invitation and said it was the first time she had been to Washington D.C.

“It was amazing. … I’m still unpacking all of my feels,” she said. “I had no idea of, really, what to expect. But I knew I was in for something that was unprecedented, and it did not disappoint.”

Levitt also said she received validation that the work she does in Greenfield is part of the solution. Stone Soup Cafe is a pay-what-you-can gourmet hot luncheon that has served community meals from All Souls Church on Main Street since 2012.

Comerford, D-Northampton, said she took a 6:15 a.m. flight to the nation’s capital Wednesday and didn’t get home until at least 1 a.m. Thursday, though she felt invigorated for the 22 hours she was awake.

“It was, really, one of the best days I think I’ll ever remember. It was … vibrant, hopeful, electric,” she said. “It felt very efficient. It felt like we were being called together to do a piece of work.”

Comerford, like Belmonte, commented on seeing McGovern applauded for his work in combating food insecurity.

“I have to say, I am an enormous fan of Jim McGovern and I have heard talk about his vision for a White House conference,” she said. “To see Jim being recognized for being an instigator for this was pretty wonderful.”

Inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, McGovern stressed the magnitude of the president announcing that ending hunger is a national priority.

“What happens today is important, but what happens tomorrow is even more important, and the follow-up,” he said on Wednesday. “We all have to keep our commitments and our word here.”

The congressman also mentioned his first job on Capitol Hill, working for his mentor, late U.S. Sen. George McGovern, to whom he was not related. Jim McGovern spoke of the South Dakota Democrat’s bipartisan work with U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, D-Kansas, on the hunger issue.

“They were different — polar opposites. (Sen. McGovern) was a liberal. Dole was a conservative. But they figured out that you don’t have to agree on everything to agree on something,” he said. “And the something they agreed on was that ending hunger needed to be a priority.”

According to Jim McGovern, 35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “And we live in the richest country in the history of the world,” he said. “We should all be ashamed of that. And this conference is the first step to changing that reality.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.
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