Monday, October 12, 2015

Tuesday's Democratic Presidential Debate - what they candidates say and don't say.

Because I was once deeply engaged in presidential politics – before there was a Trump Tower let alone a Trump campaign , events like the upcoming Democratic debate hold an abiding fascination for me (as have the Republican debates).  Add in that Hillary Clinton has been a Share Our Strength supporter and spoke at an Autumn Harvest Dinner, Martin O’Malley a No Kid Hungry champion and lifelong friend, and Jim Webb a traveling companion to Vietnam when I worked in the Senate to help normalize relations with Vietnam – and you can see why I’ll be tuning in Tuesday evening.

There will be plenty of opportunity to analyze what the candidates say. I’m even more interested in what they don’t say. Because with work like ours focusing on those who are economically and politically marginalized – one of the biggest challenges is getting politicians to even acknowledge such issues. 

Try to keep count of how many times the candidates say they’ll fight for the middle class.  Compare that to how much you hear about fighting for people living in poverty, for vulnerable and voiceless children, for the need for Americans to sacrifice, or make investments that won’t pay off until the long-term.   

Candidates don’t win many votes talking about such things.  But if they don’t talk about them, when they get elected they don’t have a mandate or perceived responsibility to act on them. And so the cycle continues.

There’s still a long way until the general election in November 2016.  As the impact of our No Kid Hungry campaign grows, as we increasingly demonstrate that childhood hunger is solvable, as we prove there can be bipartisanship on such issues, such encouraging news could help politicians not be afraid to talk about such things, and not be afraid to envision a better America.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Keynote at Texas Hunger Initiative Summit: Together at The Table, Baylor University

For those who kindly asked, some excerpts of my comments at the Texas Hunger Initiative Summit: Together at The Table, Baylor University, October 8, 2015, as best I could remember and capture them:

First, thank you Bill Ludwig for that introduction and thank you Jeremy Everett and the team at THI for inviting me to join you today. I’m inspired by your commitment, thrilled that we are partnering through the Social Innovation Fund, and eager to learn from your leadership.

I am deeply grateful to all of you for the work you do.  It means a lot because you have the ability to help us solve a very solvable problem, and impact many other issues we care about.  If we don’t seize that opportunity, the very real consequence is that we will be letting a lot of kids get hurt, kids right here in Texas, as well as around the U.S.  We end up robbing them of their health, educational opportunities, of their full potential, their future.  We end up stealing from children even though we are the last nation on earth that ought to be doing such a thing. I know that you and I share the conviction that America is better than that.  Hunger in America is a social justice issue

This is an extraordinary time.  For the first time in history we’ve had 45 million Americans living below the poverty line for three years in a row. We’ve crossed a threshold where a majority, 51% of public school students, now live in poverty. Kids in families with incomes under $25,000 have 6% smaller brain surface area than kids from upper income families.  That’s based on pure correlations of MRI brain scans and family income. That’s been documented by the best neuroscientists working in America today at Columbia University.  At a time when the world seems more dangerous than ever, 3 out of 4 17-24 year olds are not able to join the military.

But as Pope Francis said during his visit just a few days ago, speaking about refugees but applicable in this context as well:  “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”  I’ve had that opportunity to see faces and hear the stories as I’ve traveled the country from one end to the other these past 12 months with the National Commission on Hunger established by Congress.

“God squeezes but he doesn’t choke you” said one elderly man when asked how he survives on only $800 a month.  Or as one immigrant in El Paso near our border with Mexico told me “There is light in our streets but darkness in our homes”  The food bank director from New Mexico explained that “we are no longer in the emergency food assistance business. We are feeding the same families 7-8 times a year, and so it is chronic hunger and chronic economic food insecurity.”

The good news is that hunger is a solvable problem. Why? Americans are not hungry for the reasons that people around the world are hungry. It is not war or famine or drought. We have food in abundance and food programs too. But not everyone is accessing them, especially kids. For example

22 million kids get a free or reduced price school lunch. All are eligible for breakfast and summer meals.  But only 11 million get breakfast and 3 million get summer. It has been bought and paid for for all of them. What a huge opportunity.  In NY, just a few months ago, the mayor and city council agreed to put $18 million in the budget to move 500 elementary schools to our breakfast in the classroom, or breakfast after the bell strategy. That adds 370,000 kids to school breakfast. 

This is typical of the results Share Our Strength is getting with its No Kid Hungry strategy.

-          We’ve helped bring about the greatest increase in participation in childhood hunger programs since the programs began


-          We have demonstrated a “school breakfast dividend” in terms of better math scores, better attendance (Deloitte study) and more instructional time (Virginia No Kid Hungry summit.)


-          We have authored a comprehensive reform of summer feeding to reverse the abysmally low participation rates, and have won bipartisan support for it, including co-sponsorship by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


-          We’ve solidified partisan support for breakfast after the bell from Nevada Governor Sandoval to Colorado Governor Hickenlooper.


-          Taken together these amount to a revolution in the nation’s commitment to feeding hungry kids

Most of these Americans are not only vulnerable, they are voiceless Our real opportunity is to help lift their voices and our own.

We must help lift the voices that say we will never let politics or bureaucracy of indifference stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal.

We must lift voices that say the fight against hunger is not part of some culture war that has to do with how you feel about the role of government or how you feel about poor people, but one of the great humanitarian, faith, and social justice issues of our time.

We must be the voice that says Congress needs to pass a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that reforms the summer meals program so that summer EBT and non-congregate feeding can get meals to kids.

            We must be the voice that says we will not only feed kids but we will marshal the will to prevent hunger in the first place.

And we must help lift the voices that say: We can’t have a strong America with weak kids

We must be the voice that echoes James Baldwin who said “these are all our children and we shall either profit by or pay for whatever they become.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Louisianans Have Long Memories

            Louisianans have long memories.

            Last week the Share Our Strength board met in New Orleans and participated in two days of site visits with other partners and supporters.

Ten years ago, within days of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, philanthropists and civic leaders poured into the region with promises of help. We traveled there as well. We committed that while we could not be the largest donor, we would stay the longest and be there until the recovery was complete. It wasn’t “on strategy” for us to do so, but an event as enormous as Katrina didn’t fit anybody’s strategy. My take-away from last week’s visit, beyond the always incredible food and hospitality, is about how small acts, outside of the spotlight and with no motivation beyond trying to help, despite long odds, can have memorable long-term consequences.

-            93 year old Leah Chase remembered how Ashley Graham of our staff helped her re-open her famous restaurant after Katrina. 


-          The Volunteers of America remembered the Share Our Grants that enabled them to create a social enterprise to make and distribute school meals.


-          Dickie Brennan of the legendary Brennan restaurant family remembered how we helped fisheries and restaurants get back on their feet.


-          The principal of the William Fisher charter school remembers how Rhonda Jackson of our team got them the grants they needed to implement breakfast in the classroom.

Share Our Strength’s past and future come together in New Orleans. It’s a place where we transitioned from grant maker to a focused No Kid Hungry strategy to increase participation in school breakfast and summer meals. Much more remains to be done. When I asked the vice-principal of one school what other issues impacted the kids readiness to learn, he told us that 48 of the 611 students are homeless, that the fathers of two students has been murdered in just the last three weeks, and so “the kids bring lots of issues from home into the classroom with them.”

For me, the biggest take-away of all is that we need to have a long memory too. The seeds we planted a decade ago continue to bear fruit in communities across the region, as Rhonda Jackson and our team continue to re-plant and re-invest. We especially need a long memory when it comes to taking risks, not letting strategy ever stand in the way of doing what is right, and sometimes being willing to start down a road even if you can’t see all the way to the end of it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

New public suppport for not only feeding kids, but preventing hunger


I wish I had a dollar for every time a well-meaning friend or supporter has said “No one could be against feeding hungry kids.”  It’s true but fails to address the real issue which is that while everyone is for feeding a hungry child, not everyone is for helping to prevent a child from being hungry in the first place.  The latter would be more cost effective, but takes more than food, and gets politically complicated.

That may be beginning to change. Here’s some good news: childhood hunger is not the only issue that generates bipartisan support. Early childhood education is another.  Our colleagues at Save The Children, and their sister organization, Save The Children Action Network led by Mark Shriver, last week released new public opinion research from five battleground states showing extraordinary levels of bipartisan support for investing in pre-K.  @

87% of Republicans, 94% of Democrats, and 89% of Independents agree that the years 0-5 are important for the learning and development of a child. And 63% believe that public education should start at the age of 4 and be offered for free to all children.  The researchers assert: “For voters, the importance of investing in early childhood and allocating tax dollars to our youngest learners is a settled issue. The next step is harnessing the political will to make expanding access and improving quality a reality.”

This bi-partisan support is similar to what we’ve found for our No Kid Hungry campaign, which itself has such critical impact on a child being ready to learn.  Childhood hunger and early learning may be logical companion issues worthy of joint effort.   School meals are one vital way of ensuring that children are ready to learn and succeed, but only one. Kids need more.

The new polling shows a common sense commitment to invest for the future and willingness to sacrifice if necessary to do so. “Sacrifice” is not a word you’ll hear from any of the 2016 presidential candidates.  It was last used by Jimmy Carter in the late 1970’s and hasn’t been even whispered since. So once again, citizens and nonprofits must lead, and wait for the politicians to follow.

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 @
            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 @  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.