Monday, July 18, 2016

Baton Rouge

           The murder of more police officers yesterday in Baton Rouge shocks but no longer surprises. Horrific incidents of violence – Orlando, Dallas, Nice and twice Baton Rouge  - come closer and closer together, leaving us seemingly powerless to prevent them.  Social media is filled with calls to stop the violence and pray for peace, but we know words and prayers will not be enough.

When the President spoke yesterday afternoon he urged that everyone “focus on words and actions that can unite this country rather than divide it further.”  At Share Our Strength we are privileged, as are many nonprofit organizations, to be in the business of taking actions that unite.  The deep divisions plaguing us can only be diminished by sharing: compassion, resources, opportunity, justice, and strengths.  Such sharing requires faith, but the alternative is unfathomable. Our anti-hunger, anti-poverty, and community building work has always mattered deeply both to those we serve, and to those for whom we’ve created opportunities to serve. In the days ahead it matters even more.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Letter from the Hardest Day of Chefs Cycle

After the second day of Chefs Cycle we stayed at a Days Inn near the water in Morro Bay. The parking lot had been transformed into a staging ground for an army of cyclists who just had one of the hardest days of their lives. Travis Flood, a chef who rode, summoned the energy to cook dinner for the rest of us in a makeshift tented kitchen with massive black iron grills. Eight massage therapists leaning over tables worked on the sore or injured. 


We’d pedaled just under 200 miles in 2 days and with one more day to go.  The first day from Carmel to King City took us through the Salinas valley. We saw what John Steinbeck saw: the back breaking nature of the manual labor that harvests the food we so enjoy. “These migrants are more American than half the politicians in Washington” one rider said to me.


Restaurateur Christopher Myers and I compared notes on what we’d witnessed: Dozens of bikers who couldn’t go on but wouldn’t quit, pedaling so slowly up steep hills that from a distance it looked as if they had stopped and got off their bikes. The quadriceps of some cramped and were hard as stone. One sat silently against a tree with ice bags on her knees.  Those who overheated poured ice over their head to lower the temperature of their body’s core. As the heat intensified, a silence descending on the ride.  Riders stopped for water every 3-4 miles, sometimes knocking on farmhouse doors, in addition to the official water stops every 25 miles.  The day before, Ellen Bennett crashed and needed 21 stitches in her hand. The next day it would be Allan Ng, who broke his collarbone and will have surgery this week. “It was carnage,” Christopher said, his eyes wide, “Carnage!”  


Temperatures hit 106 degrees that day and there was no shade to be found. I had less than 15 miles to go, one-third of it a steep mountain pass. I wanted to finish, having completed every leg last year and having trained more this time around.  But the heat overhead and off of the asphalt had sapped my energy and along with it some of my spirit. I feared what stopping would do to my confidence on the third and last day. But I feared going on as well.


Near the crest of what would be my last hill of the day I saw a lone orange jersey near the top, a biker straddling his bike with both feet on the ground,  head down and resting on his folded arms across the handle bars. He was as still as a statute.  I pulled alongside. “Are you okay?” He lifted his head slowly. It took a moment for his eyes to focus.  He didn’t say anything but didn’t have to. “Let’s just walk for a little while” I said softly.  After 15 minutes a support car pulled up. We loaded our bikes on the back and got in.


Does it seem inconsistent if not insane to say that almost all of us look back on it as exhilaratingly fun? Is that the nature of resilience or simply time’s passage?  At dinner, several chefs said Share Our Strength had become their doorway to the healthier lifestyle they wanted to create for themselves but never knew how. If they could get healthier they could help their customers do so too, as well as the hungry kids we seek to serve.

The entire experience was "sharing strength", up to and including unforgettable images of one rider after another struggling up a steep mountain pass with another stronger rider on each side of him/her, one of their hands on the small of his back gently lifting him forward even as they struggled one handed to pedal themselves up the rest of the way.


As challenging as is the ride, what we do every day at Share Our Strength and Community Wealth Partners is even harder: insisting on transformational rather than incremental change, maximizing impact for every child, designing new ways for individuals and businesses to share their strength, maintaining our commitment to innovation and accountability, all while knowing that the cathedral we are building may not be finished in our lifetime.


I went to sleep on the evening of the second day saying to myself that I wasn’t riding again tomorrow. I would be a volunteer instead.  But when I woke up 6 hours later I couldn’t wait to get back on the bike.  Again there were steep hills. But temperatures were in the mere eighties.  I rode from start to finish as I had the first day. Even kept up with Tom Nelson (mostly). We exceeded $1 million raised. It was a glorious ride.   

Friday, June 17, 2016

Special Culinary Opportunity for Donors to My Chefs Cycle Ride

In addition to the improbable spectacle of me cycling 300 miles for our No Kid Hungry campaign at the end of this month, there’s now an even more interesting angle: With just 10 days to go, Share Our Strength chefs are rallying to offer wonderful incentives for you to support the ride and help ensure we reach our $1 million goal (currently at $800K). If you donate $100 or more to my ride before close of business on June 29th, the last day of the ride, your name will go into a raffle for an amazing dinner for two of these four spectacular restaurants: 

Rose’s Luxury, Washington, DC

Masseria, Washington, DC

The Smoke Shop, Boston, MA

Craigie on Main, Boston, MA

Just click on this LINK and donate. If you donate $100 or more by Monday, June 20th we’ll double your chances to win by putting your name in twice! Funds raised will enable us to enroll thousands more kids in school breakfast and summer meals programs. To learn more about Chefs Cycle and the 140 riders, see LINK.

p.s. a pic from last year included here - just to give you confidence I'll finish!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando and the Imperative of Rededicating Ourselves to Mission and Humanity

            The events in Orlando are almost impossible to process. If you are like me you search without knowing precisely what you are searching for: insight, lessons, solace. And you wonder if these tragedies are coming closer together in a world spiraling out of control, or just seem to be.

I’ve seen posts from leaders I know who say that their own work feels almost trivial or irrelevant in the context of what has happened.  I don’t believe this to be so. In fact, just the opposite.

            On the evening that Martin Luther King was killed, Bobby Kennedy broke the news to a crowd in Indianapolis in eloquent, extemporaneous remarks that have been oft quoted. But next day he gave a more prepared speech about the “Mindless Menace of Violence” and it touches directly on our work.  On that day, in an era before either domestic or international terrorism were understood as they are today, Kennedy addressed political violence at length, but also “another kind of violence slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or bomb in the night.  This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay.  This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in winter.”

            The full text can be found at It is as haunting today in light of Orlando as it was when RFK delivered it.  Instead or reading it, I urge that you take the slower and more reflective path of actually listening to Bobby Kennedy deliver it in this 10 minute audio on You Tube.    And that you join me in doing the only thing we can do: rededicate ourselves to our mission and to humanity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Top 10 things I don't keep count of when on my bike

Training for a 300 mile bike ride means keeping count of many things such as days left until the ride (27), mileage logged (1870 since last year) and of course funds raised (more than $450,000 for Chefs Cycle 2016 as of this morning.  But during one of my 44 mile training rides last week out to Mount Vernon and back I’ve realized there are also many things I avoid counting. These are the top ten:

-          The number of riders who pass me (too many too keep track)

-          The number of gnats swallowed riding through Rock Creek Park at dusk  (enough protein to skip dinner)

-          The number of times I’ve ended a ride at Ben and Jerry’s

-          The combined age of my knees

-          The number of hills between Carmel and Santa Barbara as displayed on this year’s route map

-          The staggering number of miles that Jen Jinks. Lucy Melcher and Courtney Smith are logging each week.

-          The number of orthopedic surgeons available in the DC area.

-          The number of well-meaning people who ask “YOU are doing the ride?”

-          The number of tattoo’s I would need to match ride leader Jason Roberts

-          The number of dollars we will raise next year with 300 riders!

On the other hand, the most important thing to be sure to count is the number of new supporters – either riders or donors – who are learning what it means to share their strength and are getting behind our No Kid Hungry campaign. If last year is any guide that will number in the thousands. Our intellectual design challenge has always been to create new ways in which others can share their strength.  We usually use “strength” to refer to the skills, talents, and gifts one has to share.  But in this context it refers to a physical strength that our supporters work first to build and then to share. Such commitment will bond them to our cause for a long time.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Graduation Speech at U of Pennsylvania May 15, 2016

            Thank you Dean Fluharty, and thank all of you for this opportunity to return to the place that for me was not only formative but fun. Most important of all, congratulations to each and every one of you.

            I will keep these remarks concise, for many reasons not least of which is a conversation I had with my ten year old son Nate who reminded me in no uncertain terms that it is your accomplishments being celebrated here today, not mine.


Nate had noticed, on a shelf in my closet, an honorary degree from another University whose commencement speech I delivered a few years ago. He asked “dad, did you go there.” I said “no,”. He said “but they gave you a diploma.” I said “no, it’s not a diploma, that’s an honorary degree”. He said, “but you didn’t go there?”  “No” I replied. “So you got it for doing absolutely nothing.”

“Well not quite nothing” I offered sheepishly. “I think they hoped my work and words might inspire the graduates.”

“Dad, do you seriously think it is inspiring to go to college every day for four years and see the first degree go to someone who’s never been there a day in his life?”  A ten year old’s logic is always hard to contest. “It’s just honorary”  I said in retreat.   He shook his head and walked out of the room uttering the worn word he uses for all adult pretension: “Sad.”
              So, appropriately chastized, I will briefly share only three things and then sit down.

First, as much as I appreciated the generous introduction, that is not really who I am, or at least is only a part of who I am.  I am also the son of a loving mother who died from a drug overdose before I completed my education.  I was a principal architect of three losing Democratic presidential primary campaigns, one of which spent more than four years paying off debt.  I’m happily married, but only after a first marriage that failed. And after I graduated from Penn I went straight to law school and then failed the bar exam. Twice.  As the infomercial says, ‘wait, there’s more!’ But I’ll spare you.

I share this not for sensationalism or sympathy, or to hold your attention for the next 9 minutes as desperate as I am to do so, but to persuade you that no life, not even a successful life, perhaps especially not a successful life, is lived as an unbroken string of successes.  The shortcomings, failures, and even bad luck that are an inevitable part of being human need not hinder your success if you know what to take from and do with them.   Conversely, spend your life or career carefully avoiding any risk of failing and you will almost certainly guarantee it.  Vice President Joe Biden, who is present with us today once said “Failure at some point in life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable.”

So try to see the world whole and to let the world see who you really are. Not because it will always be as attractive as your Facebook page, but because in the long run people figure it out anyway.  As my wife Rosemary taught me we live longer and healthier if our “on stage” and back stage lives are one and the same,  an undivided life. It’s the richest blessing I can wish you.

Second, as diverse as you are in you intellect, appetites, energies, appearance and ambition, you share in common at least one gift and one power.  The gift is the ability to share your strength.

The anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization I started in 1984 with a $2000 cash advance on a credit card is called Share Our Strength and was built on the belief that everyone has a strength to share, a gift that you may take for granted but that can be deployed to benefit others. By sharing strength I don’t mean writing a check or volunteering at a soup kitchen. I’m talking about giving of yourselves, of your unique value added as chefs have done by cooking at food and wine benefits and teaching low income families nutrition education, and as have done teachers, corporate execs, authors, architects, journalists, and so many others including low income families themselves working in their communities.

Since then we’ve raised and spent nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to help end hunger in the U.S.  We’ve added millions of America’s poorest kids to school breakfast programs, and seen attendance and test scores improve accordingly.  We’ve added tens of thousands of summer feeding sites when the schools are closed. We’ve help build the emergency food assistance network of foodbanks, etc.  Solving poverty is complex, but feeding a child is not. Our success underscores what can be achieved when, in the words of the writer Jonathan Kozol, you pick battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win.  

Although it’s good work,  good is not good enough.  And we can’t finish what we started without you. There are 45 million Americans on SNAP (food stamps) today and nearly half are children. For the first time a majority of our public school students, 51%, live below the poverty line.  11% of American children live in deep poverty, below 50% of the poverty line.

The gap that exists between what we know and what we do when it comes to investing in children is so large as to be indefensible. It’s a gap that might be thought of as our “full potential gap”.  But it’s not only the full potential of children trapped in poverty that is being lost. It is our full potential as well. Yours and mine. We can’t have a strong America without strong kids. You and I won’t achieve the full potential we have – to live in peace, to travel the world freely, to benefit from shared prosperity and robust economic growth if we don’t close this gap.

For those in this election year debating what it will take for America to win again, one thing on which we can all agree is that America doesn’t win if our kids don’t win when it comes to nutrition, health, literacy, inequality, and opportunity.  James Baldwin: “These are all our children and we shall either profit by or pay for whatever they become.”

The other thing you have in common, the greatest power on the planet, which each of you has in equal measure, is the power to bear witness.

I went to Ethiopia during a devastating famine more than a decade ago, to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to Haiti after the earthquake.  I had less of a sense that I could effect change than that I would be changed by what I saw and felt, by  the emotions - sadness, sympathy, despair, anger, outrage, and ultimately hope  - that are the inevitable response to such a situation.  

When something affects us powerfully we often say we have been moved. The literal implication is having started out in one place and ending up in another. In this way being moved means being transformed and personal transformation is what powers social change.

Bearing witness makes us complicit.  What we’ve seen can’t be unseen – and we are left with a profound choice: do something or do nothing.

Take the opportunity to bear witness in your own way and time. Go somewhere you haven’t been and see something you haven’t yet seen. Look until you feel something and then tell someone what you’ve seen and felt. This is what it means to bear witness. This is what it takes to change the world.

Third, and finally: Don’t wait.  Martin Luther King once said “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs.”   These are more than eloquent words. I went to Ethiopia during the onset of a terrible famine there in 2000 and met a 13 year old girl at a school we were supporting and where we were helping to build a hospital next door.  Her name was Alima Dari and we stayed in touch, exchanging letters and photos.

But one day a colleague of mine went to Ethiopia and I gave him a letter to give to Alima, but didn’t hear from him for ten days.  He wrote and said “I hate to tell you this but Alima died of cerebral malaria. She’s been misdiagnosed with Tuberculosis, the hospital we were building was not yet finished, and by the time they got her to Addis Ababa it was too late.”  Dr. King’s very words. 

You don’t have to go to Ethiopia to find your Alima. She is here in Philadelphia, or Memphis, or L.A.   Share your strength on behalf of an Alima somewhere in this world. The time we’re allotted to solve problems is limited and precious.  Don’t wait!

Don’t wait until the mortgage is paid, or until you get the promotion, or until it stops raining.  No one conveys this better than the commencement speaker you are fortunate to hear tomorrow, Lin Manuel “I am not throwing away my shot” Miranda.  I’ve been lucky enough to see Hamilton twice. One this past week with Lin in the starring role, and a month ago, on a Sunday, with his understudy’s understudy who had his first and only star turn on Broadway and gave the performance of a lifetime.  You never know when your moment to shine will arrive.  Be ready. Don’t wait.

Most important of all, when your intentions meet the inevitable obstacles don’t just wait.  Jaywalk if you can, break a window if you must, pick a lock. 

What distinguishes Share Our Strength, and other effective social change efforts.  Every time a door closes we pick the lock.  In the Baltimore school system the answer to everything we wanted to do to feed more kids was to check with the director of school food and nutrition. And who is that person we would ask?  “Oh, the position has been vacant for two years.”  

When told “We can’t afford the salary”, we replied, “we’ll pay it.”

When told “we’re not allowed to hire a search firm”, we replied, we will hire them.

 I could give you a thousand similar examples. Social change is not about having a good plan.  It’s not about being well funded. Though that helps.  Success at social change is about knocking down the obstacles between you and your plan which arise more often than the clock strikes the hour.   Often the key is in picking the lock.

I gave my son Nate the first words and so I’ll give him the last.

It had long been his fantasy that he and I would “camp out” in the living room of our apartment in Washington  DC.  I said we could do it, but only once, and we used the fireplace as a campfire and I sang him songs and we put some sleeping bags under a tent made of blankets and kitchen towels.  He slept like a rock and I tossed and turned all night.  The next night he wanted to do it again but I said “Oh no, I’m sleeping in bed with mom”.  He was disappointed, even angry with me, and said “fine but I’m sleeping out here.”  I walked down the hall to our bedroom and before I could even pull back the covers he was standing in the doorway, blanket in one hand, teddy bear in the other and said:  “Who am I kidding, I wouldn’t last a minute out there on my own.”

Well who among us would truly make it on their own?  Where would we be without our classmates, our teammates, our professors, our parents, our-coworkers, our lovers, and our friends?   Where would we be without extending our hand or reaching for one?  If anyone has ever helped you in any way, you are now in a position to honor it as you leave here by committing to bear witness and sharing your strength.

I know I wouldn’t have lasted a minute on my own.  But after Penn I was never really on my own again because I had the benefit of my wonderful years here and the community that surrounded me.  You do too. Congratulations. 


Monday, May 2, 2016

California Here We Come

            I’m just back from California where Jeff Bridges and I met with Governor Jerry Brown and Diana Dooley, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, to enlist support for our No Kid Hungry campaign.  The Governor is a young 78, and as you’ll see from the attached pic, a clean-shaven Jeff was looking quite youthful himself. (Jeff brought some swag from The Big Lebowski but Brown had never heard of the film and his staff apologized that “he’s only seen about four movies in his entire life.”)  The Governor asked about obstacles to kids getting nutritious meals, and how our campaign works.  His aides agreed to bring him a plan and the door is open for us to do a launch event together later this year.

            We also met separately with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson whose staff includes 300 people focused on the food and nutrition assistance programs delivered in schools and they are eager to work with us.

The meetings affirmed our role as a voice for children who are otherwise voiceless. The combination of Jeff Bridges, our strong results in “proof of concept” states where we’ve invested heavily, and the appeal of our proposed investment of $38 million in California over the next 10 years to leverage $162 million in annual federal reimbursements, helps ensure our voice is heard. 

Next steps are for our team and Governor Brown’s team to prioritize regions of the states and plan an event that raises the campaign’s visibility. The opportunity is tremendous in areas like San Francisco and Oakland that have school breakfast participation rates as low as 31% and 36% respectively.   We know from other communities in which we’ve brought the campaign, including Los Angeles, that we can move the needle and change outcomes for kids, schools, and communities. California here we come.