Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why This Time is Different in The Fight to End Childhood Hunger

Per several requests for a copy of my remarks at the Share Our Strength dinner on June 6 at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington DC, I didn't speak from a text, but have tried to transcribe what I said, as follows below:

Thank you so much for being with us for such a special evening. I’ve had the privilege of speaking to you from this podium more than 20 times now, during good times and bad, but never at a moment as pivotal as this. I’m grateful that Senator Leahy is here, a lifelong champion in the fight against hunger, and of course I’m grateful that Jeff Bridges was here tonight and grateful that you had a chance to meet and hear him. I’m sorry my young son Nate wasn’t here. He asked me the other day who was older, me or Jeff. I explained that Jeff was older. And he said “But that can’t be – he’s got so much more hair!

Nate, at the tender age of six, turns out to be this very interesting combination of idealistic yet pragmatic, and in ways that I think reflect exactly what Share Our Strength is all about and the reason we have grown so successfully. He spends a lot of the summer in Maine at a small cottage we have on the water.

Recently a neighbor came over and said “I had an interesting talk with your son. I was building a sand castle down by the water’s edge with my son”, he continued” and your son came over to us, hands on hips and said: “Just so you know, I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re always gone by morning.”

Well those of us who have been in Washington for some time might say the same about some of the causes and campaigns that we’ve seen come and go: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, climate change, even hunger. But I’m here tonight to tell you that this time is different. We’ve got a dream but it’s not built on sand. In fact it’s got a more solid foundation than anything I’ve seen before.

Here’s why it’s different. Hunger is a problem, but it is a problem with a solution. In fact the extent of the problem has never been greater. 48 million Americans live below the poverty line and 19 million of them live in deep poverty, families of four living on less than $11,500 a year. 44 million are on food stamps and half are kids. Secretary Vilsack told me that one of every two kids in this country will be on food assistance at some point in their lifetime. As you heard Scott Pelley say, today’s generation of children faces hard times worse than anything since the Great Depression. But as you also heard him say, there is a solution and it is Share Our Strength.

The solution has to do with two facts:

First, kids are not hungry because we lack food or food programs but because they lack access to those programs. 20 million kids get a free school lunch but only 9 million get breakfast and only 3 million get meals in the summer when the schools are closed. Even though all 20 million are eligible. The reason they lack access is that sometimes they aren’t aware of the program, but most times the state or city where they live hasn’t set the program up.

Second, and this may be Washington D.C.’s best kept billion dollar secret, the food in the programs these kids lack access to is already paid for, it’s costs are 100% federally reimbursed. It buys milk from local dairy farmers, break from local bakeries. But the money doesn’t flow until the kids actually participate.

Here’s the catch: These kids are not only vulnerable but voiceless. They don’t belong to organizations and they don’t have lobbyists. There is no greater testament to their voicelessness than the fact that $1 billion has been allocated for their needs and they are not getting it. These are federal entitlement programs but not the programs that have given entitlements a bad reputation. They are not drivers of the national debt. They represent the bipartisan wisdom of our predecessors, the wisdom that says kids are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, and something as basic as whether or not they eat should not be subject to the prevailing political winds of the moment.

So what we do at Share Our Strength, in its very simplest terms, is work with governors and mayors, nonprofits and businesses, in public-private partnership, to identify the barriers to kids participating in programs like summer meals and school breakfast. And then we knock those barriers down. If it means working with community organizations to set up additional sites, that’s what we do. If it means putting ads on radio stations to make parents aware of where their kids can get food, we do that too.

• Maryland: In 2010, there has been a 45% increase in participation in summer meal programs over the previous year.

• Arkansas: They have nearly doubled the number of summer meals sites where families can access free summer meals.

• Colorado: There has been a 66% increase in the number of kids who are participating in school breakfast programs in the two years.

• Washington State: There has been a 64% increase in participation in SNAP in Washington State.

And tomorrow we will be joined by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia in making this a truly bipartisan effort, and an important regional one, with Maryland Governor O’Malley, to end childhood hunger.

I hope what we are doing sounds good. But I also hope you will agree that good is not good enough. Why? Because Martin Luther King once said “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs.” Despite our success there are still too many children for whom we are too late. The spectacular results we are getting in Arkansas have not found their way to Texas. The progress we’ve seen in Maryland, has not reached Mississippi.

If you came to Washington or have stayed in Washington because you wanted to change the world or some small piece of it, if that has something to do with why you are in this room tonight, I hope you will agree that there is no higher likelihood of accomplishing that than by helping us address this problem with the solution I’ve described.

We have worked too long and too hard and fought too many good fights to let our legacy be swept away like sand castles at the water’s edge by incoming tides of special interest and cynicism. We’ve worked too long and too hard and fought too many good fights to let our legacy be an America in which record numbers of kids go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, show up at school hungry, and become part of an economy and society weakened by such neglect.

So tonight I ask you to join me in ensuring that for my son Nate at the beach, and your own kids wherever they are, and for American children everywhere, that this time will be different, that this time what we build together will not be washed away like sand castles at high tide, that this time what we build together will be there in the morning, and will be there for the next generation, that this time what we build together will endure and inspire like the great cathedrals that have stood for hundreds of years.

This time what we build together will say to the world that we not only have a vision but a voice and that we have raised our voices together on behalf of those whose voices are not heard, and that rising together our voices finally changed the national conversation, that our voices unashamedly and finally made heard the idealism that brought us here in the first place, that our voices insisted that partisan politics should not only stop at the water’s edge but at the doorstep of any home where young children need a chance and are depending on us to give it to them, that our hopeful voices finally achieved an America in which there is No Kid Hungry.

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