Monday, August 24, 2015

Public-Private Partnerships at the Heart of Our Success with No Kid Hungry Campaign


    

This weekend the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported on how a small grant from Share Our Strength will have a big impact on First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe’s effort to add 100,000 kids to the school breakfast program in Virginia in the next 2½ years.  It is such a strong representation of how we forge public-private partnerships that combine state, federal, nonprofit and business resources to get things done for hungry kids. See @ http://www.richmond.com/article_09c2b0ef-d688-5c3a-ade6-fe39277c5390.html
            The amount of this specific grant was small, but it leveraged hundreds of thousands of additional dollars. And First Lady McAuliffe is squarely on message about the educational advantages of this type of bipartisan approach.  We are seeing similar results in Nevada, Colorado, Arkansas, Maryland, California and numerous other states. 

           We still have a long way to go to get to done, but this type of public-private collaboration that has always been Share Our Strength’s signature style will get us there. Along with setting big goals, holding ourselves accountable to specific outcomes, focusing on children and remaining bipartisan, it is a critical ingredient of the “secret sauce” we can someday bring to other challenges of hunger and poverty.

 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bearing witness in Appalachia to mothers and babies

In response to my post below about poverty and brain development, my colleague Jen Keleba wrote the following which I found much more interesting than what I wrote. With her permission I am reprinting it here:


I went on a site visit in rural Kentucky to pretty much your most typical Appalachia scenario: double-wide with tattered curtains and a bursting front porch; everything perched in a dirt yard strewn with rusted-out American-made models up on cinder blocks; the requisite dog-on-a-chain spinning in impotent circles of rage. It actually looked quite a bit like the area where I grew up, which was startling in and of itself to realize that I came from a place most Americans would want to “help.”

Anyway…the mom was essentially stranded on this land. Her husband worked so he had the only car, and money to buy gas was strictly budgeted for the work commute and nothing else. Her own education stopped at 6th grade, but she had somehow found her way into this program for her kids to have a Save the Children program officer come bring books to her children and teach her to read to them.

I was holding the baby, who was about 18 months old, as he mouthed at the corner of a board book and waited for the “lesson” to begin. But it never really did. The program officer and the mom ended up talking mostly about household food budget and tips on how to make the dollar stretch. There was a lot of talk about “What have the children been eating these days” and depending on the answer, the program officer would make suggestions about deals she’d seen in the produce section, or she’d relate a family dinner she’d made that had lasted for three nights. It was all done in a very casual “visiting” manner. I remember wondering, “Um…are we ever going to get around to reading to this kid?”

At the time, I just didn’t get it. What I heard was two women chatting about household economics and trading recipes like my grandma and her friends on a Sunday afternoon, none of which was in the early childhood education curriculum we were marketing and selling on a national level to funders. It wasn’t until the final five or so minutes of the visit that we actually pulled out a book and worked with the mother and baby to read together. And then I saw it…the whole demeanor of the mom had changed. When we’d arrived she’d been suspicious and stiff (certainly a result of my presence to “document” the trip) to the point where she’d been awkward holding her own child. By the end, she’d relaxed into a smiling, nurturing position and was reading, though with some struggle, to her baby. As we left, she thanked the program officer for the food tips with a smile and a wave, and a promise to keep reading to the baby until next time.

You probably saw this coming from a mile off, but it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that until that mom could figure out how and what she was going to feed her child, it didn’t matter how many books we pushed under her nose. In the order of importance, answering her child’s hunger came before all else. Hunger was the immediate problem that could not wait; reading, in that case, could.

It was a profound turning point for me in understanding the poverty gap in education…heck…even in understanding better so many of the people I grew up with. Your email this morning reminded me of that lesson.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

letter from the hippocampus


            Like a SWAT team tracking escaped convicts, scientists investigating the damage that poverty inflicts on children are utilizing forensics to close in on the culprit.

New research more strongly links poverty, brain development and reduced academic achievement.  In April I wrote about the ravages of inequality on America’s children, as evident in correlations between low income and smaller brain size.  See @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/billy-shore/-smaller-bank-accounts-sm_b_7151794.html  On July 20, a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Seth Pollak published findings in JAMA Pediatrics (Journal of the American Medical Association) that went farther than before. 

Analyzing MRI scans of 389 children and teens over six years; they found that poverty affected the structure of three parts of the brain related specifically to academic achievement: the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the hippocampus. 15-20% of the gap in test scores between low income and upper income kids can be explained by structural differences in those three parts of the brain. Kids living in families below the poverty level had 8-10% less gray matter in the regions of the brain associated with learning and scored 4-7 points lower on standardized tests.

The new study is the first to connect these findings. "Our research suggests that specific brain structures tied to processes critical for learning and educational functioning (e.g., sustained attention, planning, and cognitive flexibility) are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty, such as stress and limited stimulation and nutrition," the authors note. "It was stunning to see the circle closed—the delay in brain growth explains the achievement deficit in poor children," says Pollak.

The “aha!” is not so much the correlation but the granularity and specificity of imaging that makes such correlations irrefutable, and harder to look the other way.

 When it comes to poverty, our national Achilles’ heel is the habit of “out of sight, is out of mind.”  Brain size is a microcosm for it. Talk about invisible!  If not for neuro-science we would never know that specific damage that hunger and poverty inflict. Until now we never had an unobstructed view. Instead we had to speculate, surmise, make a leap of faith. Graphing MRI’s to income and test scores makes what is fuzzy more sharp and clear.  

Nature gave us all hard skulls, just not hard enough to protect what’s inside from politics, bureaucracy, indifference and neglect.  But the good news, as JAMA said in an editorial, is that the sensitivity of the brain (what scientists call “plasticity”) to positive as well as negative “lends credence to the idea that interventions to remediate adverse early environments may have some success in altering this neurobiological tie.”

These discoveries add urgency to everything we do.  It puts Share Our Strength on the front lines not only of feeding kids but also increasing educational opportunity. Whether you are working on our Hunger Free Summer for Kids legislation, Dine Out, corporate partners, innovation, culinary, Cooking Matters, or other vital relationships, it’s more clear than ever that a generation of children across the country depend on your efforts.

Monday, July 6, 2015

lessons from our border for The National Commission on Hunger


A national commission’s report to Congress can seem like an academic exercise at times, but there was nothing academic about coming face to face with young moms who fled violence and abuse in Mexico, to clean homes and sell tamales in Texas, hoping for a better life for their kids.  Tears, pleas and hugs said more than their translated words about a level of suffering on our side of the border that has become the norm as politicians remain paralyzed on immigration reform. 

At the end of June the National Commission on Hunger visited the Texas/Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley for a field visit and hearing.  Hosted by The Texas Hunger Initiative, we traveled in and around El Paso, meeting families struggling with hunger, health care, jobs, and the nearly insurmountable challenges of addressing them while undocumented.  Many were from colonias, the unincorporated settlements often lacking basic infrastructure like water and electricity.

            The Texas border is 1254 miles of paradox. Families with four or five kids may have one or two born here and therefore U.S. citizens entitled to benefits such as SNAP, but with brothers and sisters who are not.  Seniors without enough food for more than one meal a day, are too proud to seek emergency food assistance.  Families who fled poverty in Mexico find conditions too similar here: “There is light in our streets but darkness in our homes” said one man.

            “How do you manage to get by on disability and SNAP payments that add up to only $800 a month?” a commissioner asked one older man, now a U.S. citizen. He replied: “God squeezes but he doesn’t choke you.”

            During testimony, one food bank director said their work was no longer “emergency food assistance” because they see clients an average of seven times a year which means “they are chronically food insecure because they are chronically economically insecure.”  We heard compelling arguments, as we have elsewhere, for more flexibility in summer feeding. 

Many we met argued that in the world beyond Washington’s convenient constructs, the issues are intertwined and must be dealt with holistically and comprehensively if we are to have a chance of solving the hunger at the heart of the Commission’s charge. If the Commission could get Congress to embrace that wisdom from the colonias, it might be the greatest contribution we make.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A "school breakfast dividend" that increases instructional time and boosts achievement


            When New York put $17.9 million in the budget this week to enable 500 elementary schools to switch to breakfast in the classroom, it meant 340,000 more kids will start their day with the meal they need to succeed. That’s worthy of celebration in its own right. But as they say on the late night infomercials for knives and kitchen appliances: “Wait, there’s more!”  We’re learning that the impact of breakfast in the classroom is potentially even more profound.

            A panel at Virginia’s School Breakfast Summit this month cast our school breakfast work in a new light. The four testimonials from a principal, superintendent, literacy specialist and school nutrition director went beyond the usual rhetoric that “hungry kids can’t learn.” Instead each made a related but different point about the value of alternative breakfast strategies.  They explained how breakfast after the bell increases instructional time in measurable ways.

Many kids previously came to class late most days because they would go to the cafeteria first – not early before school, but as the first period was starting – and then arrive at first period halfway through.  Alternative breakfast gave the teachers 20 minutes back and a full first period.

Increased instruction time is the coin of the realm in education circles. It is one of the most important variables in increasing the academic achievement upon which school rankings, teacher performance, and funding often ride. Accordingly legions of advocates advance and champion ideas for squeezing more class time into a finite school day.

Now apply this to our win in New York. Imagine a percentage of the 340,000 elementary school students who will start getting breakfast in the classroom having 15 more minutes of instructional time a day.  Over the course of 180 school days that would yield 45 hours of additional instruction. More than an entire week.  It is a “school breakfast dividend” that compensates for the class time that we’ve been stealing from children and teachers through the less inefficient cafeteria model instituted half a century ago.  Any calculation about return on investment for breakfast after the bell ought to include it.

There are obvious physical and developmental benefits to ensuring that children start their day well fed and ready to learn. There is also the value of eating together as a class, in a more communal setting, rather than in cliques in the cafeteria. Now add additional instructional time that benefits students and teachers alike.  There not a less expensive or more cost effective way to achieve it than the innovation moving breakfast to when and where kids are, rather than requiring the kids to navigate logistical hurdles, often beyond their control, of getting to breakfast.

There’s more to celebrate than we thought.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

From The Chefs Cycle Finish LIne


            I’m happy to report I finished the 300 mile Chefs Cycle ride from Santa Barbara to San Diego and to almost everyone’s surprise never had to get into the support van, and the automatic defibrillator never had to come out. We raised more than $330,000 for our No Kid Hungry work and had more than one thousand brand new donors to Share Our Strength. None of it would have been possible without your generous support and your wonderful friendship.

 

It was almost all fun, except for a few excruciatingly painful hills. The two fingers I am typing with are the only parts of my body that don’t hurt.

 

Most important, there are some wonderful new Share Our Strength leaders emerging among the riders, a new generation of chefs, restaurateurs, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts passionate about No Kid Hungry and eager to raise more money and more awareness. They taught me a lot about team work. If even one of the 20 riders had not been there I’m not sure I would have made it to the end. It was also a great lesson in how each of us is capable of far more than we think, of how many limitations are self-imposed and can be exceeded, and of how many people out there are looking for ways to share their strength and make a difference for others.

 

The end of the ride included a one and a half mile climb up a mountain in an area called Torrey Pines. The intimidating hill had been talked about so much in advance, in such fearsome terms, that it took on the mythic quality of a ghost story repeatedly told at a camp fire. The apprehension beforehand was almost worse than the ride itself.  If you had taken of a video of me on the climb it would have looked like a still shot, except for the sweat pouring down my face and onto the bike frame.  

 
All of the riders are already looking ahead to the next challenge, and the next way they can share their strength. Think about joining us for all or part of next year’s ride. Remember, if I can do it, anyone can!

Monday, May 25, 2015

The long and winding road of Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry


          Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry is on the verge of an achievement that many would not have thought possible.
          Memorial Day weekend was a key training milestone, with extended time for long rides.  One thing that struck me is just how much the challenges of this ride parallel the challenges we face ending childhood hunger. The chefs who are riding in Chefs Cycle will raise an incredible amount of money that will enable us to feed millions of kids.  But more important, they are demonstrating qualities invaluable to our No Kid Hungry campaign.

            Much of my time on the bike this weekend felt great. But some was not so great.  High winds on several stretches slowed my progress to a crawl. There were a few construction site detours. My chain needed to be oiled. I ran out of Gatorade before I finished. Toward the end of one long ride my legs were just out of gas and the left knee that I thought would bother me was nothing compared to my right quad. 

            Every path has variables and adversities whose specifics may not be predictable but that are guaranteed to surface. We see the same in our efforts to advance No Kid Hungry.  A new governor comes into office who is not as supportive as the last. A school food service director vacancy goes inexplicably unfilled for months. A funder we counted on gets fickle and directs their money somewhere else.  Everything takes longer than anticipated.

            There are dozens of reasons to say we’ve gone as far as we can go, just as there are dozens of reasons for getting off the bike. Many are valid. All of them get you to the same place: somewhere short of the goal. Perhaps the greatest challenge, whether on the bike or in our work, is the ever present doubt, second guessing, and fear of not accomplishing what you committed, publicly, to do.

That leaves one indispensable quality which is what Chefs Cycle and No Kid Hungry are all about: persistence. I always envision our No Kid Hungry team as walking on to the field just as everyone else who has tried but failed is walking off.  I think of Chefs Cycle going a distance that no one else thought could be accomplished, doing what Josh Wachs, our Chief Strategy Officer, insists upon in No Kid Hungry state campaigns: “getting all the way to done.”
           Participating chefs are not only raising money but personifying the role of persistence in teaching, inspiring and leading. That’s what gives me confidence we will succeed in achieving No Kid Hungry.