Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why We Can Succeed in Ending Childhood Hunger (Remarks at Autumn Harvest Dinner)

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 18 times now, during good times and bad, but never at a moment as pivotal as this.

I’m grateful that Savannah Guthrie is here, and grateful to Kim DiPalo and Danny and everyone on their team for such support. I do want to say a word about Danny Meyer, because there is no one in the country who has made a bigger difference in our success – and we now have an annual budget of $37 million a year – than Danny has as a mentor, leader, champion and friend. The recent New York Times magazine cover story told of how successful he’s been, but it didn’t say what he has done with his success, to what purpose he has put his success, and it is that which I admire most about him because Danny is not only a successful business leader he is a leader in the community and an example of what inspired citizenship can achieve. The reason it wasn’t in the magazine is that it would take an entire book to describe his accomplishments. Fortunately that book is being written today in the smiles of children who have been fed, and on the bodies of children who are strong and healthy because of Danny’s support and leadership.

As I thought about how to describe for you the special blend of idealism and pragmatism that I think is at the heart of Share Our Strength’s effectiveness, I was once again helped by the words of our six year old son Nate. 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.” This is the moment I begin to hold my breath. Anyhow, this man on the beach comes over and says “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 many of us might say the same about some of the causes and campaigns that we’ve seen come and go, be it 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. 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line and 20 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. Today’s generation of children faces hard times worse than anything since the Great Depression.

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 August 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 we were recently 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 are in this room tonight because you believe we can change the world, 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’ve got a diversity of interests in this room, and many of you have numerous other community and philanthropic commitments. But we’ve come together because we believe that children are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the position in which they find themselves. And it turns out that is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree on as well. And so do teachers, and doctors and Fortune 500 CEO’s and economists, and chefs, of whom some of the best in the world are here tonight. So this problem of hunger has a solution. Private efforts can’t take the place of vital public policy, but engaged and active citizens who put people ahead of politics, can show Washington the way.

We have worked too long and too hard and fought too many good fights to let our legacy be swept away 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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SNAP (food stamps) one of our most effective childhood hunger programs

Earlier this week we met with Bob Greenstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He is also a long time member of the Share Our Strength board. Bob’s focus is poverty and hunger. He knows that are even more narrowly focused on childhood hunger. And he wanted to be sure that we understood that the most effective childhood hunger program in the country is SNAP (food stamps). Three-quarters of SNAP recipients are families with children. 93% of SNAP benefits go to families with incomes below the poverty line (about $22,000 a year for a family of four.)

SNAP is also the program at greatest risk from budget cuts. The child nutrition programs such as school breakfast and summer meals are not expected to come under attack. But there has always been a political mythology about SNAP, especially that it is subject to fraud and abuse and can therefore afford to be cut. At one time that was true. But Democrats and Republicans came together and reformed the program. Today benefits average less than $1.25 per person per meal. So to cut SNAP could compromise the basic health and well being of more than 20 million low income households.

Whether SNAP makes for good political fodder may be debatable. The facts are not. In 2009 SNAP lifted 1.7 million children above the poverty line. Any serious effort to address the record levels of poverty recently reported must protect SNAP.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Four questions nonprofits must ask in light of dramatic rise in poverty

Last week the Census Bureau released a new survey showing a record 46 million Americans living in poverty below the poverty line, and more than 20 million living in deep poverty (below less than 50% of the poverty line) The sheer magnitude of the problem – greater than any time in the 52 years since such records have been kept – makes it likely that the work of virtually every nonprofit and social service organization will be impacted by heightened need. Most if not all will be asked to do more with less.

There are at least four questions that community leaders and nonprofit executives should be asking in light of this crisis level of poverty:

First, anticipating greater need, are we investing internally in building capacity to meet it?

Second, is it possible to do more with less or must we find ways to not only redistribute wealth but to also create a new kind of wealth called community wealth?

Third, will we go about doing business as usual, or can we reorganize to serve those most vulnerable and voiceless in our society?

Fourth, are our programs and services designed to yield incremental change or to achieve the transformational results necessary?

These are many of the questions we’ve wrestled with over the past 2 years at Share Our Strength and at Community Wealth Ventures. Share Our Strength has grown from revenues of about $14 million in 2008 to about $36 million today. The result is that we and others in the anti-hunger community been able to alleviate a significant percentage of hunger even as poverty has increased.

Community Wealth Ventures is working hard to tease out these lessons of success, and the ingredients of other transformational efforts, and to make them available to other nonprofits and community leaders. To see if they can help go to

Friday, September 16, 2011

Increase in Poverty Not Surprising, But Lack of Bold Response Is

The government’s newly released statistics showing a record 46 million Americans living in poverty were shocking but not surprising. The dismal economic trends of the past few years made a surge in poverty predictable. But the sheer magnitude of the problem – greater than any time in the 52 years since such records have been kept – cannot fail to shock the conscience of the nation.

But it unfortunately has failed to shock the conscience of politicians and policymakers. Perhaps most surprising of all is the tepid response and the utter failure of the President or any other national political leader to come forward with a set of bold proposals designed to reverse this devastating descent into despair for so many of our fellow Americans. Most failed to even muster expressions of sympathy. The media’s front page coverage was met by sounds of silence.

Jobs creation is of course a critical piece of what is needed. And there has been a belated focus on that. But even in periods of robust economic growth, and much better employment rates, such as during the Clinton Administration in the 1990’s, we’ve had more than 30 million Americans stuck below poverty and little effort made to reach them.

There’s a callousness settling into our political system that is deeper and more disturbing than the kind that is reflected in the political infighting and cheap shots that have become par for the course under the Capitol dome. It’s a callousness toward the suffering of other human beings who have nothing to do with politics or one’s political adversaries, but simply have the misfortune to be vulnerable and voiceless. There are 46 million of them now and they need someone in Washington with the courage to speak out on their behalf.

A nation indifferent to the fate of 15 percent of its own citizens has worse shocks ahead.

Monday, September 12, 2011

bearing witness to famine in Horn of Africa

Yesterday’s New York Times published a rare first person account of what it feels like to be hungry in the midst of famine. @

The tragedy in Somalia and the Horn of Africa continues to unfold in the face of man-made logistical obstacles that make meaningful relief problematic. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to continue to bear witness and fuel our own commitment to make a difference.

One of the lessons from the colossal suffering the world seems unable to stop, is that by the time a famine reaches this level, we have almost certainly missed the window of opportunity to intervene on a scale commensurate with the scope of the horror. The numbers are overwhelming and the political and security situation that prevents aid from being delivered, cannot be overcome merely with humanitarian best intentions and good will.

That is why long-range international development efforts, that do not lend themselves to dramatic film footage on the evening news, and which get so much less attention, are all the more important for us to support. One of the things we’ve always done best at Share Our Strength is to find creative ways to help people see needs of which they may not have been aware, and how they can share their own strengths to meet those needs.

As much as all of us naturally have the impulse to do something immediate for Somalia – and we have made an emergency grant and can hopefully do more - our greatest impact will come from developing a strategy, as we’ve done with No Kid Hungry here at home, that builds a larger and long-term constituency of supporters for efforts to ensure that those in famine struck regions can ultimately support themselves. That’s the kind of work that takes not only years but decades. It requires a kind of compassion and commitment that can be sustained long after this immediate crisis has passed.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Another chapter in The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men

I get the question all of the time. “How does the story end?” After reading through 300 pages of my new book “The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men” it’s a fair question. Indeed one of the challenges in finishing the book was knowing that the story of developing the first vaccine that might prevent malaria probably wouldn’t and couldn’t have an ending for another 10-20 years. That is partly the nature of science and it partly represents the almost insurmountable obstacles that scientists have faced over hundreds of years in trying to combat malaria. (The book can be found @

But that is one of the central points of the book, following the wild rollercoaster ride of Steve Hoffman in particular, from the beginning of his penniless lab in a strip mall to the infusion of more than $30 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which enables Hoffman to build a world class vaccine manufacturing facility. It takes certain qualities of character and specific entrepreneurial strategies to solve problems that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets for solving them.

Now, on the heels of a deeply disappointing clinical trial, Hoffman is back with a newly published paper in the journal Science with vaccine results that he describes as “staggering.” As any entrepreneur would, he took failure not as an end in itself but as another lesson learned along the continuum, and proposed the never before used innovation of introducing a vaccine intravenously. When tried on animals, the results were protection of between 71% and 100%, compared to protection of only 2 out of 44 when tried on humans via injection into the skin. (see summary of Science article @ )

“It was an ‘aha’ moment “ said Robert Seder at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Its classic entrepreneurship: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. It is the twist-and-turn lineage of most great achievements, moreso than a straight line. The initial results left Hoffman disappointed but undeterred. And now he has taken a huge step forward, fully aware that further complications lie ahead, especially how to overcome the practical and logistical challenges of wide-scale distribution intravenously. “Our goal has always been to show that this vaccine is highly effective. Once we have done that. We’ll figure out how to make it practical”, he told Science Now. Just the sentiments that made Hoffman the central figure in The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Two Books Give Voice to the Voiceless Suffering from Malaria

Is the global campaign against malaria reinventing international aid? That’s the thesis of an important new book, Lifeblood, by Time’s Africa bureau chief Alex Perry. @

The book, whose pub date is today, makes the case that former businessman and now UN Special Envoy for Malaria Ray Chambers approaches charity like a business. Having known Ray for many years, that is definitely one of the many strength’s he brings to the task.

In my recent book about the quest to end malaria, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, @ I try to look at the challenge from the other end of the telescope, not just using business strategies and tactics, but looking at the strategies and qualities of character demanded by the toughest problems to solve, which are those that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets for solving them.

The two books make a good pair: Perry’s looking at the distribution of insecticide treated bed nets to prevent malaria infections, and mine looking at the quest for a vaccine to eradicate the disease completely. Thanks to our publisher Public Affairs for giving voice where there was none!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day comments on link between jobs and hunger

On Wednesday of this week the USDA releases its latest food insecurity numbers, and on Thursday, President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress about jobs. The press coverage will be unlikely to draw any connection between the two events, but it is essential for us to understand, act, and speak out on just how intimately these two issues are tied together.

Getting Americans back to work is a central ingredient to the long-term success of virtually every social program including the anti-hunger programs we champion. Record levels of poverty and unemployment make it extraordinarily difficult to reduce economic inequity and win battles to end hunger, ensure equal educational opportunities, and create a more just society. Those of us working toward those goals will come up short unless we take a larger and longer term view that includes economic growth and job creation as a priority. We must make our voices heard on those issues as surely as we will on the USDA hunger statistics.

The president’s jobs package is likely to be imperfect, and include compromises that reflect political reality. But it is critical to elevating the human catastrophe of millions of unemployed Americans as a priority on the national agenda. (As is typically the case, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities led by Share Our Strength board member Bob Greenstein, has an insightful analysis of the August jobs numbers @ )

Until now the political will in Congress has been insufficient to achieve progress on jobs. It will remain so unless more of us speak out and specifically underscore the connection between our missions and the need for bold measures to address the jobs crisis. Part of our leadership responsibility at both Share Our Strength and Community Wealth Ventures is to encourage others in our sector to look beyond their specific silo, focus on the bigger picture, and raise their voices as well.

Nonprofit and advocacy organizations focused on human services need to reach out this week – to their supporters, donors, stakeholders and all of those they serve – and explain how and why concerted, bipartisan action on jobs is directly related to the mission of their organization.

In the case of our No Kid Hungry strategy, our challenge not only would be more manageable if more families had meaningful work and less need for public food assistance, but our efforts also can actually help create jobs. States have left more than $7 billion on the table in Washington because of the number of children and families who are eligible but not participating in school breakfast, summer meals, and the SNAP program. If that $7 billion were being spent locally to buy and deliver more food products it would create additional jobs at virtually every level of the supply chain. By itself it would not be a large enough number of jobs solve the unemployment crisis, but when there are as many American families suffering as there are today, every job counts and our efforts would be a net positive contribution to that solution.

It’s fairly obvious that when more Americans are working, they are less likely to need food assistance. But what’s less obvious is that enrolling more children in food programs as we do through our No Kid Hungry campaigns can also help create jobs. The national conversation this week and next will be focused almost exclusively on ideas to create jobs. If we want to be heard, we must find ways to talk about what we do in that context. And the large numbers of hungry children in America need us to be heard if they are to have a voice in that national conversation too.