The following passage is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Denise Minger’s riveting new book Death by Food Pyramid. Order your copy of Death by Food Pyramid by December 31 and get free gifts plus a chance to win Primal prizes valued at $1,800. Learn all the details here.
On a spring night in 1968, thousands of Americans witnessed the televised death of an infant, body no bigger than a toy doll, lying limp as he took his last breath beneath the unflinching gaze of the camera. “This baby is dying of starvation,” the narrator’s voice boomed. “He was an American. Now he is dead.”1
The gut-wrenching footage was part of a CBS documentary called Hunger in America—an expose? on the nation’s hidden plague of starvation. From the backwaters of Alabama to the dusty Navajo reservations of the Southwest, the program pulled viewers into a world of struggle and pain, sending shockwaves throughout the country. Under the nation’s rippling flag of freedom lay a shadow few knew existed: deep poverty and malnutrition in a land that prided itself on abundance.
Among those most deeply affected was Senator George McGovern, who’d been watching the documentary with his wife and daughters. As he recounted decades later, one scene in particular burrowed deep into his conscience and refused to leave. The filmmakers had zoomed in on a young boy standing against the wall of his cafeteria, eyes downcast and solemn. “When you get to school, what do you have to eat there?” one of the CBS reporters asked him.
“Nothing,” the boy replied.
“You don’t have anything to eat when you’re at school?”
With the boy’s gaze lost to the floor, the interviewers prodded further, asking how he felt about his situation—standing there day after day with an empty stomach, watching the other children buy their lunches and eat while he could not.
“I feel ashamed.”
It was a pivotal moment for McGovern. He turned to his family, seated beside him in the comfort of their upper middle-class home. “You know, it’s not that little boy who should be ashamed,” he said. “It’s George McGovern, a United States Senator, a member of the Committee on Agriculture.”
The very next day, McGovern marched into the Senate with a mission. He would leverage his political clout for the welfare of the nation, launching a committee dedicated to abolishing America’s hidden hunger. He had no trouble gathering the support he needed. The documentary’s shocking—and, for the country’s pride, disgraceful— exposure of hunger had been enough to galvanize both the public and Congress into action.
A few months later McGovern was named chair of the soon-to-be Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, whose membership would include a number of political big-hitters ranging from the liberal Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts to the conservative Bob Dole of Kansas. It was a rare instance where partisan scuffles fell by the wayside and politicians from both sides of the aisle linked arms for a unified goal.
By 1970, the committee had successfully rekindled the food stamp program, which had lain mostly dormant since the 1940s after piloting during the Great Depression. As the months and years rolled forward, the committee approved a series of specialized “safety nets” to protect low-income individuals and families against hunger and malnutrition, including the launch of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), still in place today.
Just as McGovern’s anti-hunger mission began to see success, he announced that he would run for president of the United States, a campaign that proved to be an uphill battle nearly from the start. McGovern had already tussled with the Nixon administration over letting him expand the food stamp program, but with the stakes now raised to presidential proportions, animosity became even more cutthroat. And one of McGovern’s rivals was Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl “Rusty” Butz—a man whose legacy, to some, was almost as foul as his mouth.
While McGovern was busy tackling national hunger and juggling his campaign efforts, Butz had his hands tied with a pursuit of his own: siphoning every drop of political support away from McGovern and depositing it back into the Nixon administration. Not shy about his vote lust, one of Butz’s most prized possessions was a woodcarving of two elephants in the heat of passion, which he gleefully whipped out from behind his desk whenever he had visitors—explaining, somewhat poetically, that it symbolized his quest for Republican farm votes to be fruitful and multiply.2 And his chief plan for making that happen? Dangle the promise of bigger profits in front of the nation’s food growers.
As we shall soon see, opportunity came in spades just when Butz needed it most.
The year 1972 gave us more than just The Godfather and Watergate: it also heralded in an international food scandal whose impact is still reverberating. The Great Grain Robbery, also known as the Soviet Wheat Deal, remains so unknown today that it might read more like a bad conspiracy theory than a historical event. Sneaky Soviets. Clandestine contracts. A man with the last name “Butz.” Yet it’s a tale that is as true as it is fantastical—and its effects not only helped seal McGovern’s defeat, but also launched a period of agricultural tumult that would ripple through our food guidelines for decades to come.
In the early 1970s, the world’s food outlook was a thing of much misery. Global soybean production was down 7 percent. America’s corn crop had been ruthlessly clobbered—first with drought, and then by early frost—resulting in what could only be deemed a mass cereal killing. Canada’s wheat supply hit a ten-year low. Monsoon-ravaged Asia found itself short on rice. And the USSR, suffering both from unfortunate weather and its own questionable agricultural practices, was in the direst situation of all.3
Clearly in a jam but tight-lipped about just how sticky of one, the Soviet Union turned to America with a somber plea and open wallet. Their goal was to purchase a hefty amount of US wheat to make up for their shortage—a move that would become the single biggest grain trade the world had ever seen, kicking off a massive shift in America’s relationship with its own food system.
In 1971, when President Nixon first pulled Butz into the USDA’s fold, American agriculture was still trembling under decades-old fears. Since the 1930s, corn farmers had been cashing paychecks in exchange for leaving some of their land fallow in the face of over-production—a strategy to keep supply in line with demand. The pay-not-to-plant system had emerged as part of the New Deal, a series of economic programs intended to combat the effects of the Great Depression. While farmers had previously endured boom-and-bust cycles that shot their income all over the map (too often in the wrong direction), the New Deal aimed to turn those profit roller coasters into something more even-keeled.
Butz, eager to squash out anything with even the faintest aroma of socialism, decided it was time for a change. Viewing America’s agricultural system as a caged animal that needed to be freed, he deregulated the market for the first time in decades—tearing down the supply management policies that’d been in place since the Depression, abolishing production limits, and letting the free market reign once again. His selling point—trumpeted loudly to the farmers whose votes he was chasing—was that food producers could rake in more money if they grew as much as possible and sold their surplus overseas, reveling afterward in their products’ price hikes.
So when the Soviet Union came knocking on America’s door looking to gobble up its grain surplus, Butz saw nothing unpalatable about the situation. In fact, shuttling America’s bounty overseas would help push grain prices higher than they’d been in quite some time. Higher prices would impress the nation’s farmers. And impressing the nation’s farmers would earn Butz the political support he was vying for. His copulating elephants, had they not been pint-sized and inanimate, would have surely rejoiced.
Thinking the maneuver would be a political coup for Nixon and a sting for McGovern’s campaign, Butz helped seal the grain deal and waited for his farm-profit-boosting plan to take root. It didn’t hurt that McGovern, a native of South Dakota who was born and raised in a small farming community, had already been labeled the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” due to some of his public opinions; outshining the Democratic hopeful on the farm front would only further tarnish his image in the conservative Midwest.4
There was just one problem: along with their above-board agreement with the US government, the Soviets also made secret alliances with some of the nation’s top grain producers. So instead of buying just $150 million worth of wheat as expected, they secured nearly $1 billion of the grainy treasure—all at dirt-cheap subsidized prices. With deft timing, the USSR tiptoed away with a full quarter of America’s wheat crop before market prices had a chance to shoot up from increased demand.
Although the Great Grain Robbery’s aftermath would eventually cause rampant inflation and riot-inducing surges in American food prices, farmers saw their promised profit boost just in time for the 1972 election. And to Butz, that was the only thing that mattered. He developed his own gravitational force for political support, drawing in votes from the Midwest farm belt and earning back pats galore from big agribusiness. Butz’s dictum—“Get big or get out!”—ensured a food production future where farming practices could revolutionize and expand like never before.
Michael Pollan best summarizes this shift in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, stating that Butz, because he believed big farms were more productive, pushed farmers to consolidate and regard themselves not as farmers but as “agribusinessmen”—or as he put it in another one of his quotable quotes, “adapt or die.” Pollan goes on to write that by the 1980s, the big grain buyers like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) took a hand in shaping the farm bills, which predictably came to reflect their interest more closely than those of farmers.5
But for now, it’s still 1972. And with former fence-sitters firmly won over to Nixon’s side, the election became a landslide victory for the Republican party and an utterly annihilating loss for McGovern—with Nixon’s percentage of the popular vote coming in second only to Lyndon Johnson’s record-setting win in the 1964 election. Barry Goldwater, the candidate Johnson had mercilessly crushed, later mailed McGovern a political cartoon that placed the two of them side by side, spoofing the dourly father and daughter in the painting “American Gothic,” linking them by their devastating defeats. “George—if you must lose, lose big,” Goldwater had scribbled on the cartoon.6
The levity wasn’t enough to soothe McGovern. Scarred and anguished by the loss, he and his wife contemplated moving to England in the months following the election.7 He opted instead to remain state-bound and threw himself with renewed vigor into tackling American health and hunger. In the end, he still yearned to leave an impact on the nation.
It wasn’t long before McGovern’s concern with diet bled across political borders and into his own life. Following the election, he encountered a man whose radical message would reform McGovern’s kitchen, profoundly influence his views on health, and ultimately trickle into the nation’s future. Enter Nathan Pritikin: an inventor-turned-diet-guru who’d famously declared, “All I’m trying to do is wipe out heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.”8
After securing patents in fields ranging from photography to aeronautics to engineering, Pritikin turned his gaze to the most intricate machinery of all: the human body. He’d developed a fascination with heart disease after discovering its rates had mysteriously plummeted in wartime Europe. An established problem-solver, Pritikin was determined to figure out why. His own sleuthing—which launched him on a journey through various universities, scientific papers, and doctor’s offices—eventually landed him at the door of Dr. Lester Morrison, a California-based cardiologist who’d also been intrigued by the drop in heart disease during World War II. Speculating that the lowfat, low cholesterol, rationed diet forced upon much of Europe might have something to do with it, Morrison spent the early 1950s testing the theory on his patients. For fifty of the most ill men under his care, Morrison prescribed a diet mimicking that of wartime Europe; for another fifty, the control group, he let them eat whatever they chose.
The results were profound. While patients in the control group were dropping like flies, those on the mock-rationed diet saw their cholesterol level plunge and their survival rates double.9
In 1956, after catching wind of Morrison and his experiments, Pritikin stopped by the doctor’s clinic for a checkup of his own. The news was discouraging: with a cholesterol level topping 300 and an electrocardiogram showing coronary insufficiency, Pritikin, at the young age of forty-one, was himself a victim of heart disease.
The diagnosis was enough to spur him into action. Unconvinced by the era’s standard advice to cardiac patients—to stop exercising, stop climbing stairs, rest often, and take naps in the afternoon—Pritikin plowed deeper into research, eventually stumbling across population studies showing that when blood cholesterol fell below 160, heart disease seemed to vanish. It was a compelling solution in Pritikin’s mind. By 1960, after adopting a lowfat, sugar-free, salt-free vegetarian diet and adding a three-mile run to his daily schedule, he managed to slash his cholesterol to a mere 120—and a new stress test showed the coronary insufficiency that first frightened him into action was now gorgeously reversed.
In the following decades, Pritikin conducted a series of projects testing whether his spartan diet-and-exercise regimen could save hearts other than his own. By 1975, with mounting evidence in the affirmative, Pritikin opened his namesake Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Barbara, California, inviting members of the public to take part in the same program that had saved his own life. Soon rolled in the book deals, the magazine articles, and the television interviews, including a popular segment on 60 Minutes that brought Pritikin’s message to the nation.
Though Pritikin’s plan seemed impressive when it came to slaying heart disease, its effects on health weren’t universally glowing. As former Pritikin Center director Joe D. Goldstrich noted, when long-time adherents of the Pritikin diet returned to the center for follow-ups, many had developed dry, itchy skin—an outward manifestation of an essential fatty acid deficiency.10 The complaints were copious enough to convince Pritikin to add a weekly helping of salmon to the diet. And while the program enjoyed success in battling chronic disease and excess weight, its multifaceted approach—reducing not just fat intake but also sugar, refined grains, salt, and most heavily processed foods—was often lost on the public and media, who interpreted the program mainly as a lowfat boot camp.
And so it goes that McGovern, whose own cholesterol level totaled a worrying 350, ventured to California to participate in Pritikin’s increasingly famous program. Perhaps it was the “filling but not thrilling” menu that stopped him short of becoming a puritanical devotee.11 Or maybe it was the senator’s demanding schedule and social obligations that didn’t easily bend to such a rigid diet. Either way, McGovern spent the next several decades steering his diet in a Pritikin-esque direction, noting in a later interview:
You can’t go to somebody’s house and say, “Oh, I can’t eat any of this.” So I try to cut down on overall consumption. When I’m traveling, I always can order a salad with only vinegar—no blue cheese. For breakfast I can get, almost anywhere, oatmeal with skim milk, a sliced banana, unbuttered wheat toast. A piece of fish for lunch is fine.12
A description of his food choices at a banquet in 1988 reflects a similar theme. According to Philadelphia’s Inquirer, McGovern “ate heartily through lowfat courses consisting of precisely 2.5 ounces of chicken breast, assorted salt-free and butter-free vegetables, a baked potato with a dollop of fat-free yogurt, and a piece of carrot cake sweetened with apple juice concentrate.”13 And while it may seem baffling that a man showered with an abundance of delicious, catered foods would opt for such a modest menu, McGovern had good reason to stay motivated: even rough adherence to the Pritikin diet had slashed his cholesterol to 170, pleasing both him and his physicians.14 It didn’t hurt that his wife Eleanor—who had also spent time at the Longevity Center—was a gifted cook who, per McGovern’s own words, “makes the Pritikin diet the best of anyone I know.”15
After Pritikin committed suicide in 1985—taking his own life rather than endure the final days of the radiation-induced leukemia he’d been battling—McGovern spoke as the principal eulogist at his funeral, celebrating the man’s life instead of mourning his death. Describing their relationship as “fast friends, mutual admirers, and fellow crusaders,” McGovern’s ongoing admiration for the lowfat diet king shone through his words:
Nathan Pritikin is one of the great men of our time. I say is a great man rather than was, because he achieved in the way he lived an immortality that will enrich all of us for the rest of our lives. …
He demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the American diet—rich in fat, sugar, salt, nicotine, and alcohol—was the enemy of health and longevity. … When a reporter asked me if Nathan were [sic] controversial, I laughed and said ‘Of course he was controversial. So was [sic] Louis Pasteur, and Thomas Edison and Madame Curie. You show me an original thinker with a mobilizing vision, and I’ll show you a controversial figure.’ That is another mark of a great man.16
Given what the future had in store for McGovern’s own name and image, the statement was strangely prophetic. McGovern, too, would go down in history as an icon of controversy, for much the same reason as Pritikin.