Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Young and younger, special needs and our special focus


Last Friday Rosemary, Debbie and I visited the Y2Y Shelter at Harvard Square - the only student run shelter in the country for young adults between 18-24 experiencing homelessness. In Boston that about 150 a night. It’s a cohort with special needs, unlikely to feel safe in an adult shelter. Y2Y has 30 beds, serves dinner and breakfast, and offers counseling to connect young people to social services. Boston has only one other facility for young adults, with 12 beds.

Founders Sam Goldstein, age 24 and Sarah Rosencranz, 25 gave us a tour while half a dozen Harvard students scrubbed bathrooms, cleared breakfast tables, and loaded a mountain of dirty laundry – bed sheets and towels - into 3 of the 4 working machines.  Some volunteer as much as 20 hours a week on top of a full course schedule. 

About 36% of the guests have previously been in the foster system. 32% have spent a night in jail.  Approximately 30% are LGTBQ who left home once they came out to their parents which today happens at a younger age than before. “Our goal is to help them break the cycle so they don’t become chronically, permanently homeless” says Sarah who explains that 89% of their guests say that they have a concrete plan out of homelessness after their stay at Y2Y.  See https://tinyurl.com/zcrx3yq

From there we went to record a podcast with chef Ming Tsai and Dr. Debbie Frank from the Grow Clinic at the Boston Medical Center. Dr Frank’s patients are mostly under two years of age. She says “public policy is written on the bodies of the babies I see … Some come in with rickets, from lack of vitamin D, which causes a bending and bowing of their legs.”   But not everything lends itself to an “eyeball diagnosis” Dr Frank tells us.  She described an 8 month old whose mother didn’t understand why he was failing to thrive. She’s been feeding him a cornmeal and sugar water mush and he wasn’t complaining but was getting sicker. “They were saving on food costs because they anticipated their landlord evicting them soon – not for failure to pay rent, but because of the need to make space for one of the landlord’s family members.”

Our morning and afternoon conversations had a common thread: the young – from college students to infants and toddlers -  are vulnerable in unique ways most don’t appreciate, and fail to adequately serve.  That’s why children have been our focus at Share Our Strength and why we need to be especially vigilant in the days ahead as those we serve could be impacted by potential changes to Medicaid, SNAP, and other policy shifts.

            (Also, because national security advisors are in the news this week, it’s worth noting that former President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor Anthony Lake who is now the Executive Director of UNICEF,  wrote an op-ed called Dark Days For Children about the tremendous suffering on the global scale that made 2016  “one of the worst years for children since World War II.”   He  underscores the need “to harness innovation to expand our capacity to reach children who are cut off from assistance in besieged areas or communities” https://tinyurl.com/gmknmb5 )

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

433,000 More Kids Getting Off to a Better Start Each Day


 “More low-income children than ever started their school day with a healthy breakfast in the 2015-16 school year" With this sentence, the Food Research and Action Committee’s annual breakfast scorecard released yesterday confirmed the historic progress that has been made over the past ten years, the period of time in which Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign’s number one priority has been expanding school breakfast to all kids who need it. For the full report, see @ http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/school-breakfast-scorecard-sy-2015-2016.pdf

            433,000 more children were getting school breakfast last year than the year before, increasing the national average from 44% in 2006 to 56% in 2015-16, a clear majority of eligible kids getting the food they need to succeed.

            433,000 kids, in your neighborhood and mine who are getting off to a better start each day. 433,000 kids making America stronger and more competitive thanks to government policies that enjoy bipartisan support and are both compassionate and pragmatic. 

            The progress described above did not come easily. Nor was it due to any one organization. Just the opposite.  Every time the larger anti-hunger community encountered an obstacle to kids getting breakfast, we worked together to knock it down. Thanks for the hard work and support that enabled our team to play such a meaningful role.

            Poverty and food insecurity are still way too high in America. But by virtually every measure childhood hunger is decreasing. Childhood hunger is a solvable problem and the new breakfast scorecard is evidence that public-private partnerships are solving it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Challenge of Prioritizing The Most Vulnerable Children of All


Every year the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University publishes basic facts about low income children in the U.S.  Their latest report shows that out of all age groups children are the most likely to live in poverty and that nearly 300,000 more children are living near poverty today than at the height of the great recession. http://nccpblog.tumblr.com/post/156627439877/americas-youngest-children-most-likely-to-live-in

Several facts stand out:

n  While 30% of adults have low incomes, more than 40% of all children live in low income families, Including 5.2 million infants and toddlers under 3

 

n  More than 60% of black, Hispanic and Native American kids live in low-income families compared to 30% of Asian and white children – a ration largely unchanged in recent years.

 

n  infants & toddlers under 3 are particularly vulnerable: 45% live in low-income families (approximately $48,000 or 200% of the federal poverty line), including 23%, (2.6 million kids), in families below the poverty line (approximately $24,000 for a family of four)

 

n  Food assistance, public health insurance and other programs have had a mitigating effect on poverty but in the U.S. kids have nearly a one in two chance of living on the brink of poverty

Outside of the small community of child poverty advocates, the annual report, like others of its ilk, gets little attention.  Such reports don’t constitute the “click bait” that drives websites and children don’t have expensive and well connected lobbyists or PR agencies to put their case in front of media influencers or elected officials.  Those of us who have a voice need to raise ours on their behalf.

One of the things that’s amazing to me is how little is done, publicly or privately, to prioritize the 2.6 million children under the age of three who are arguably the most vulnerable of all. Such prioritizing is easier said than done. Toddlers don’t live in isolation from older and also needy siblings or from parents whose needs must be addressed if they are to have a chance of effectively providing for their kids. Establishing priorities implies accountability for achieving them and that entails risk that may be uncomfortable. Still, these 2.6 million should become a priority for public institutions and private organizations. It’s a manageable number and a solvable problem and solving it would provide the greatest return on investment of nearly any other social challenge.  All of us need to better understand how we target and triage on behalf of those who are most vulnerable and voiceless of all, to move them from the back of the line to the front of our conscience and concern.

Monday, January 16, 2017

An MLK Day Story About Those Who Serve


We spent Saturday morning at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall where our friend Carolyn Casey kicks off a service project there every January for Martin Luther King Day. She brings in eighth grade students who have been selected as community service ambassadors from Boston’s 351 towns. They provide a powerful idealistic counterpoint to the cynicism and divisiveness that characterize our politics today. We take Nate just to expose him to it.  http://www.project351.com/

Carolyn’s brother Mike Casey was photographing the event from the balcony where we were seated and where Nate was snapping some pics too. He came over to say hello.  While chatting with Mike we mentioned that a neighbor of ours knew the widow of world famous photographer Yousuf Karsh and was hoping to introduce Nate to her. “Well she’s been my mentor and I drove her here today,” Mike said. “She’s sitting in the first row. Why don’t I introduce you all to her right now.”   

Estrellita Karsh, at 88, is the charmer I suspect she’s always been. She began by asking “You’re from the legendary Share Our Strength?” and of course she had me forever.  Rosemary had the presence of mind to invite her to our next Share Our Strength dinner in Boston and she immediately accepted.

Even if you don’t know or never heard of Yousuf Karsh, you are sure to recognize his iconic photos, a few of which I’ve attached here, including the portrait of Dr. King that explains Estrellita’s connection to Saturday’s event.
 
 
She's an elegant woman, with fashionable earrings under hair pulled back tight. She has a clear strong voice and organized mind. “Yousuf would have loved this crowd of young people out to change the world. The secret of his success was accepting people for who they were and capturing that. All this talk of tolerance today. Ugh. It’s not about tolerance. Think about that what means. It’s not enough to tolerate someone. They’re tolerable? It should be about acceptance.” 

 “Is the Churchill anecdote true?” I had to ask, and she immediately knew I was referring to the story of Karsh pulling Churchill’s cigar out of his mouth accounting for the iconic image of Churchill all but growling at the camera. “It certainly is,” she replied, going on to tell us the entire backstory of a 31 year old Karsh, hauling 200 lbs. of equipment to a room near Ottawa’s Parliament in 1941 and taking that famous portrait which Churchill’s handlers had not warned him about in advance.  
 
 

            “Yousuf made a career of taking pictures of people like these,” she said again looking around the room at the hundreds of young people heading out to serve. “People who were doing something positive in the world: Churchill, Martin Luther King, Einstein, John Kennedy.  They weren’t always great people, in terms of being nice, but they were doing important things for the world. He basically got to photograph the 20th century and I got to be along for a piece of that.”

            Several speakers at the event quoted Dr. King’s famous statement that “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” Estrellita Karsh was telling us the same thing.
 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Cabinet Job Interview We're Still Waiting To See


            Shortly after Tom Vilsack became President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, he told a small group of us about his job interview with the then President Elect. “He said to me ‘at the USDA you are going to be responsible for farmers and commodities and forests, and many other pressing matters but the first and most important thing I want you to do is to make sure that all of our children are fed.’”

            With the Secretary of Agriculture being one of the last remaining cabinet positions for President-Elect Trump to fill, one can only hope that a similar conversation is taking place.  But amid all of the talk about dealmakers, and conflicts of interest, and the importance of who “looks the part”, it’s a bit hard to imagine.

            Not much has been heard about vulnerable children from the parade of office seekers coming and going from Trump Tower and Mar-A-Lago.  That’s a shame because America’s children are hurting with nearly 20% of them living below the poverty line. When our kids are compromised in terms of their nutrition, health and educational achievement, our economic competitiveness and national security are compromised as well.

President Obama set the bar high with his appointments. Secretary Vilsack and the team he assembled remained faithful to the charge of protecting the most vulnerable. In my 30 years in Washington, Tom Vilsack strikes me as a rare public servant who combines compassion with competence, and empathy with effective executive leadership.  Child poverty rates improved during his tenure and the percentage of children living in households with the kinds of very low food security that means missed meals, fell to one of the lowest levels recorded.

But there is still a long way to go. We can only hope that someone senior in the new Administration will have a story similar to Secretary Vilsack’s about a new president urging him to put children’s interests ahead of the special interests.  If not, the rest of us must.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Confronting Bigotry With Values: Our New Moral Imperative

The following excerpt was the last of 5 points made this morning at our Summer Meals Summit, about how Share Our Strength and other nonprofits must navigate the new political environment:

           Our political culture has evolved from unpleasantly divided to unacceptably ugly.  It is undeniable that we’ve seen bigotry, misogyny and racism become more accepted and normalized. Leave aside where the blame may lie, but make no mistake, this not only stands in the way of our specific goals, but it also transcends them in importance. We have an obligation to make the values that have always been implicit in our work, explicit. We need not and should not do so in a partisan, divisive or finger pointing way.  But we must say out loud that our values of inclusiveness and diversity mean that when we say No Kid Hungry we mean No Kid. No city kid and no rural kid. No Baptist child and no Muslim child. No fifth generation American child and no immigrant American child. No straight kid and no gay kid.  No white or black or Latino kid. And while we must work with anyone, from any party, from any Administration who is willing to join us in combatting the politics and bureaucracy and indifference that too often stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal, there will be no ambiguity about our values.

            I urge all of our colleagues in the public, nonprofit and civic sectors to do the same. Whether their work is poverty or climate change, health care or hunger, We face a new moral imperative. It’s a tough assignment. We’ve succeeded by sticking to our knitting. And it is tempting to continue to do so.  Speaking out against hate speech is the job of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations. It’s their core competence, not ours.  But when such behavior begins to flourish out in the open as it has and is, we can’t leave it to others to defend the very people we seek to serve, and work alongside.   Universal human dignity must be the underpinning for what we do and how we do it.

  

Remarks at our Summer Meals Summit on December 5


            Thank you all for being here and special thanks to the team at Share Our Strength – Derrick, Stephanie, Duke and Courtney and so many others, as well as Arbys and C&S Wholesale Grocers for sponsoring and making possible this convening.  I am also so grateful to Secretary Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary Kevin Concannon not only for being here today, but for the long and compassionate leadership you’ve provided and which we are going to sorely miss. You’ve made such a difference in the lives of America’s kids.

            The next few days will be rich in information about how we can be more effective and successful in ensuring that the vital nutrition kids receive during the school year is not cruelly and damagingly interrupted over the summer.  The expertise that has come together in this room is unparalleled. If there is any group anywhere that can make it happen, this is it.  

I want to focus my remarks on what’s at stake in our success, and how we navigate the new political environment.

            I’ll begin my sharing some words from some young students that made a big impression on me. Like many of you I spend a lot of time in schools. And recently while I was speaking to a 6th grade class, I was asked these two questions: “Are you able to serve the children and families you work with, without embarrassing them?” and “Do you get to seen and know the children and families you serve and do they feel seen or do they feel invisible to you?”

            It seems to me that these two questions sum up what we are fighting for and why:   Ensuring that every child is visible, every child knows and sees and feels our commitment to them, and that we make these investments in ways that don’t discriminate or embarrass, but rather honor and lift up children and ensure their dignity.   That’s the best argument I know for ensuring that summer meals work for every child that’s eligible – and they are not wondering whether their food will come from when out of school, nor subject to the vagaries of emergency food assistance.

            Tomorrow will be a month since the election of Donald Trump as President.  Many of us have been asked what the election results mean for our work and for the goal of achieving No Kid Hungry. And while a lot is still unknown, I think it means at least the following five things:

First, our focus will remain where it has been so productively aimed these past few years: on the states and governors, both Democrat and Republican, who are responsible for executing programs like school breakfast and summer meals. In a new political environment where many essential resources are at risk of going away for children, the public food and nutrition programs which have such a track record of bipartisan support and effectiveness, may offer states one of the most economical and impactful way of investing in healthy and well educated kids.  And as you and I have seen, at the local level citizens are less ideological, more pragmatic, more willing to invest and sacrifice for kids in their community. As much as we hope for shortcuts, we may have to continue the long hard slog that has led to an increase of tens of thousands of summer meals sites.

Second, we must rededicate ourselves to bearing witness, to seeking a better understanding of our country and its citizens and their needs, to understanding the truth of America, which includes 31 million kids at or near poverty, and many families struggling in an economy that does not provide them with good paying jobs. You are in of the most powerful positions in this country because you can see, hear, feel and touch what hunger looks like. And you must make it your job to take others – civic leaders, business leaders, journalists – into the community to bear witness too.

Third, although the political pendulum has swung dramatically, Washington can’t get much more partisan than it has already been these past 8 years, with one side proposing and the other all but automatically opposing.  But that hasn’t stopped us from working in a bipartisan fashion on behalf of children and child nutrition, and we will continue to do so.

Fourth, the best defense is a good offense. Our No Kid Hungry community must do more than oppose proposed policy changes although oppose them we will when it comes to threats to children. We must remain on offense, and not be afraid to advocate for big ideas or even expensive ones, as opposed to retrenching to only focus on fighting budget cuts or bad proposals.  If there is greater economic growth and massive infrastructure investment, then we will need a strong, healthy and educated workforce to make it happen and sustain it.  An element of any infrastructure plan should be to pay for school conversions to breakfast in the classroom, building summer meals sites, revamping WIC clinics, and investing in early childhood health and education.  While our values remain the same, there are more politically savvy ways to frame our role in the national conversation, emphasizing Return On Investment, human capital, efficiency, which we should have been talking about all along.

            Fifth and finally, our political culture has evolved from unpleasantly divided to unacceptably ugly.  It is undeniable that we’ve seen bigotry, misogyny and racism become more accepted and normalized. Leave aside where the blame may lie, but make no mistake, this not only stands in the way of our specific goals, but it also transcends them in importance. We have an obligation to make the values that have always been implicit in our work, explicit. We need not and should not do so in a partisan, divisive or finger pointing way.  But we must say out loud that our values of inclusiveness and diversity mean that when we say No Kid Hungry we mean No Kid. No city kid and no rural kid. No Baptist child and no Muslim child. No fifth generation American child and no immigrant American child. No straight kid and no gay kid.  No white or black or Latino kid. And while we must work with anyone, from any party, from any Administration who is willing to join us in combatting the politics and bureaucracy and indifference that too often stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal, there will be no ambiguity about our values.

            I urge all of our colleagues in the public, nonprofit and civic sectors to do the same. Whether their work is poverty or climate change, health care or hunger, We face a new moral imperative. It’s a tough assignment. We’ve succeeded by sticking to our knitting. And it is tempting to continue to do so.  Speaking out against hate speech is the job of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations. It’s their core competence, not ours.  But when such behavior begins to flourish out in the open as it has and is, we can’t leave it to others to defend the very people we seek to serve, and work alongside.   The universal human dignity that those 6th graders so keenly understood must be the underpinning for what we do and how we do it.

            So thank you for the experience and wisdom you bring here today. Thank you for the hard work and commitment that will be required going forward.   Remember the words of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks that are inscribed on the plaque we will be presenting to Secretary Vilsack: “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude. And bond. “