Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year ritual of renewal

It is the season of both ritual and renewal. While our family is not especially observant when it comes to religion we do adhere to ritual:
-          Every Sunday we read aloud and discuss the NY Times wedding of the week

-          Each Thanksgiving Day we watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles with John Candy and Steve Martin

-          At every meal Nate and my niece Sofie try to sneak some ketchup onto whatever I am eating

-          Every December we take Nate to New York for two days of Rockefeller Center, FAO Swartz, art museums, Share Our Strength restaurants, etc.

-          Every December 28 we eat dinner at Rialto on the anniversary of our wedding reception there and every December 29 we drive to Maine for three quiet, cold days at the beach to see in the new year.

There is comfort in ritual.  But to ensure against too much comfort, one of my personal rituals on the cusp of each new year is to re-read a speech that John Gardner delivered to McKinsey and Co in Phoenix, Arizona in November of 1990.  Gardner was Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, and later a co-founder of Independent Sector as well as Common Cause. He wrote several books on leadership and human potential.

Gardner’s speaks about the need to push oneself beyond the familiar, beyond conventional thinking, and to instead constantly renew.  A few favorite excepts follow below:

-          “Everyone wants to be interesting -- but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.”

-          “Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt…You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments -- whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life's work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Your identity is what you've committed yourself to.”

-          “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are --and that too is a kind of commitment. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It matters very little whether they're behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.”

-          “Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people. But we have to bet on people -- and I place my bets more often on high motivation than on any other quality except judgment. There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation. The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.”

-          “We … must not suppose that the path will be easy, it's tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said "I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat." He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it wasn't going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly -- that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.”

-          “Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle -- endless and of uncertain outcome -- isn't more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.”

-           “I can tell you that for renewal, a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don't really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.”

I find much in here that resonates personally and much that applies to our No Kid Hungry campaign. You will find the entire speech @ http://www.pbs.org/johngardner/sections/writings_speech_1.html  There is obvious paradox in the idea of ritual and renewal, just as there is in the fact that I can’t wait for the holiday break, but also can’t wait to get started again in 2014.  We have an amazing new year ahead of us. Thanks again for the support and generosity that got us here. My best to you and your family for the holidays.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letter From Zavala County

           Greetings from Zavala County in southwest Texas, “the spinach capital of the world”, replete with an annual spinach festival and two statues of Popeye by the town square. You might expect a place where all children eat healthy and grow strong, but  instead the child poverty rate is close to 50%, more than twice the national average and the L.A. Times reports that “The highest rate of food-insecure children (in the nation) is in Zavala County, Texas, where 83% of youths are in some jeopardy.”   

 Thanks to Chuck and Katie Dooley, and our partners at The Texas Hunger Initiative and the San Antonio Food Bank, I came down a day before a scheduled speech in Austin to visit schools, teachers and social workers. Our agenda was to learn and bear witness, and explore whether we can bring back a larger group of leaders in 2014. We flew into San Antonio, and drove a couple of hours through semi-arid brush land of mesquite trees and cacti, to Crystal City, the county seat.

            Maggie Flores runs school food service for 2000 students in four schools.  She sees hunger through the eyes of “the ladies” who work for her.  They struggle to feed their own kids, taking home only $800 a month after taxes. Many work a second job after their 6:00 a.m. to 2;00 p.m. shift. The raise they are expecting will be their first in seven years. Jobs are scarce and mostly at the Corrections Center, and the Del Monte canning factory paying a low hourly wage. Some find work in new oil fields 12 miles away, where fracking turned Carrizo Springs into a boom town a few years ago.  The result is enormous  wealth for a few far-away corporations, but a higher cost of living for all who actually live here, with rents increasing from $400 a month to the $1200 a month that oil company employees can afford.

            School breakfast participation is low across the county for the usual reasons. Four years ago Flores tried breakfast in the classroom but teachers mishandled the paperwork. That put reimbursement at risk. The experiment was cancelled.

            There is no food bank in town, although the San Antonio Food Bank holds a mobile food distribution once a month. Cars  lined up there as far as we could see. Summer school includes meals for 30 days but otherwise there’s no rec center, Boys and Girls Club, or other facility to serve as a summer meals site. We asked where families turn for help. “They bunk up together”, state rep Tracy King said, “doubling up to save on rent is their only option.”

            On our way to the elementary school cafeteria, Principal Sonia Zyla told us how she’d reversed poor attendance rates, and tried to get the faculty to model behavior of good attendance and punctuality. “My mantra is Honor Our Time whether it’s the time we set for meetings, or the time we have to do this important work together.”

            We learned of the impact of HeadStart cuts, children “strategically failing” so that they could attend summer school for the meals, and one social worker’s lament with regard to obesity and poor nutrition: “I wish they would teach them how to shop.”

            So close to the newly booming oil fields, but so far from benefitting directly or indirectly, Zavala County is but an isolated example of an increasingly dominant aspect of American life: economic growth that benefits a relative few, while the struggle of hard working families persists. This week a new study from UC Berkeley reported that in 2012 the top ten percent of earners took home more than half of the country’s total income – the highest recorded level ever.  The top one percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans.

There is a price for such inequality, and in the short-term that price gets paid by those most vulnerable, least able to afford it, and least responsible for their plight– children like those  we visited at Zavala Elementary. They pay for it through compromised health, poor literacy, and lack of opportunity. In the long run we all pay –  because we can’t have a strong America with weak kids.

After decades of bearing witness, not much surprises any more, But there was one thing: no one we met asked us for support, grants, or assistance of any kind.  It was as if decades of struggling on their own had conditioned them not to expect it. We saw the hope and determination that always characterizes places we think of as Hinges of Hope.  But imagination in Zavala County has been depleted by the oppressive heat of a scorching sun combined with the cold indifference of America’s new Gilded Age.

            And that’s why we went: to learn, to bear witness, and to make sure they knew that others cared and hoped to help make a difference.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A 50th Anniversary, Both Public and Private, of MLK I Have A Dream Speech

            Wednesday is the much anticipated 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and for me it marks a related but more personal memory. That occasion in 1963 was the only time in my entire childhood my father spent a night away from home. As such it left an indelible impression.

My father was the district administrative assistant to Pittsburgh Congressman Bill Morehead. It was a demanding job yet he managed to be home by 5:30 for dinner every evening. My mother suffered from depression and while she enjoyed many happy times, the fragility of her mental health was ever-present. The hours my dad was at his office, though just a few minutes away, were especially hard for her.  She spent many afternoons with her fingers between the venetian blinds watching for him to walk down the street from the bus stop. He was careful to never be gone for long.

But 50 years ago today, he boarded a bus filled with civil rights and labor leaders for the long, hot ride from Pittsburgh so that he could be on the National Mall the next afternoon to hear King’s speech.  It meant spending that one night out of town, something he’d never done before or since.

My father was the least preachy man I’ve ever known. When he taught, it was by quiet example. The fact that he’d be away overnight – something routine for many of us in our jobs today – was anything but routine for him and our family.  For 50 years I’ve had this unusually intimate sense of how important King’s speech was, not because of the history books, commentators or monuments to him, but because of what seemed to my mom, sister and me like a monumental journey on my father’s part – an absence that signified his presence to something larger than ourselves, a minutely small sacrifice in the scheme of things that spoke volumes to us about the historic import of the day.

President Obama on Wednesday will stand where Dr King stood and is expected to assert that we’ve come a long way in 50 years but still have a long way to go   I hope he will echo the concern King spoke of for those on “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

As an eight year old I learned a little something from my father that August day half a century ago about the importance of civil rights, equality and justice. But I also learned about the importance of devotion to work that matters, and doing such work with colleagues whose talent and character you admire. For a career that has offered me both of those privileges I am grateful to him – and to them.

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Unreasonable Man's Triumph of Imagination


“Once you have proven the concept, everything else is engineering. The stakes are so high. A baby dies every 60 seconds from malaria. I can’t imagine that some engineering genius can’t figure these things out. Let’s go for it.”

 The Washington Post today with another great piece on Steve Hoffman’s malaria vaccine breakthrough @ http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-malaria-vaccine-shows-promise/2013/08/12/44367a68-036a-11e3-9259-e2aafe5a5f84_story.html?hpid=z3  

          Yesterday, the journal Science published the results of Steve Hoffman’s newest clinical trial showing that for the first time ever, 100% of the trial volunteers who received a high dose of his unique vaccine were protected.  In the last 24 hours, CNN, Reuters, U.S. News and World Report and dozens of news outlets around the country ran headlines like: “Sanaria’s Malaria Vaccine Yields Unprecedented Protection in Clinical Trials.” Or “New Malaria Vaccine the First to Offer Complete Protection.”   @ ow.ly/nMstN   Major foundation funding has quickly begun to return.   The lead researcher for Steve’s principal competitor, the giant pharmaceutical Glaxo Smith Kline was quoted as saying “This is a really important, really exciting proof of concept.”

Nearly three years ago Public Affairs published my book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, about Hoffman’s quest to develop the first completely effective malaria vaccine that could eradicate malaria as one of the world’s leading causes of illness and death for children.  @ http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1586487647/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0J2XKF0D7A1G6MSCMC2H&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1389517282&pf_rd_i=507846

            I was drawn to the story specifically because of the parallels to our work – knowing that something was solvable, knowing that existing solutions worked but were hard to scale, and that doing so might seem expensive, unrealistic or unreasonable.  Hoffman’s standard - that good is not good enough – was akin to our view that feeding kids is not good enough but that we need to end childhood hunger. I knew there was much to learn from him.

            The book was published just as Steve was taking his vaccine into clinical trials. His approach, which depended on extracting weakened but live malaria parasites from the dissected salivary glands of mosquitoes, was ridiculed in some quarters as impractical to produce and administer.  The trials went badly. The vaccine, administered by injection failed and the volunteers exposed to malaria contracted it (though they were immediately cured by aggressive medical intervention according to standard protocols.)  The funding for Steve’s work dried up.  He faced some dark days.

            But Steve knew that the weakened parasite triggered immunity to protect against malaria when they entered the body through multiple mosquito bites. So he refused to give up, even as some abandoned their support. Instead he doubled down.  He increased dosage and settled on an approach truly beyond imagination: administering the vaccine through an IV, something entirely impractical across Africa where children need it the most.  But his strategic objective at this stage was not scale, it was “proof of concept.” It's an approach very much at the core of our No Kid Hungry campaign.  Now that proof of concept has been affirmed, new funding will be devoted to additional trials, scale and sustainability. 

The history of malaria suggests no more than cautious optimism is warranted at this point. There is still a long way to go.  But Steve Hoffman’s long journey has been dramatically accelerated by the proof of concept strategy we share.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The lasting power of bearing witness

I’m just back from Seattle where I gave the keynote at a Gates Foundation conference cross sector collaboration in education.  There were attendees from across the country but with a heavy concentration from three states: Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky.  They wanted to hear about lessons from the success of the No Kid Hungry campaign that might be applicable to their ambitions for growth and greater impact.

During the Q&A, a woman named stood up, and said:  “My name is Beverly Lawrason. I just have a comment that I feel needs to be made.”  Uh oh. Everyone kind of held their breath. “I’m the Assistant Superintendent for our school district. Five years ago we desperately needed help for the hungriest kids in our community. Almost everyone turned us down. Those of you in this room can’t possibly imagine how bad it was.  Our school district is St Bernard Parish in Louisiana and we were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  We didn’t know where to turn. Then one day a bus pulled up and all of these people from Share Our Strength got off.   Thanks to them our kids got to eat and go back to school.”  

I shared that David Bradley who owns the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal was one of the people who got off that bus. Jonathan Alter at Newsweek was another. So were Jim and Karen Ansara, numerous donors, and dedicated members of our board. They were there on a Share Our Strength Hinges of Hope trip to bear witness.  And we left more of an impression than I could have ever guessed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Increasing Child Poverty and the Political Culture in America Today

            For the past ten years I’ve spent July 4th at Goose Rocks Beach in Maine whose population of a few hundred swells to a several thousand in summer. It is mostly working families with kids, scratching out a few days of summer vacation. Neighbors line the town’s main street to cheer 900 runners in the 5K road race. Then the fire department’s 3 trucks lead a children’s parade of bikes decked out in red, white and blue, to a cookout at the old Community House.  If Norman Rockwell had used Instagram it would be his snapshot of what childhood should be: sunshine and safe streets, kites and cotton candy, barbecues and best friends. 

Unfortunately that snapshot becomes less representative of childhood in America with each passing day. Just before July 4, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released their annual Kids Count report which paints a different picture of America’s children, but one central to our work at Share Our Strength. The important facts:

-          The U.S. child poverty rate is 23% with 16.4 million children below the poverty line, up from 22% in 2010 and from 19% in 2005.  The poverty rate for children under 3 is even higher: 26%.  The number of children in poverty increased even as the unemployment rate gradually declined.

-          Only 46% of 3-4 year olds attend pre-school which plays such a critical role in helping low income kids begin on a more even playing field. A stunning 68% of fourth graders in public schools were reading below proficient levels in 2011.

-          From 2007 through 2011 12 percent of children lived in high poverty areas nationwide, a total of 8.6 million, up 2.3 million children since 2000 when the rate was 9 percent. High poverty areas are census tracts where poverty rates of the total population are 30 percent or more, putting whole neighborhoods at risk with higher rates of crime, violence, unemployment and health issues.

            Statistics are only part of the story, for the rest read this heartbreaking story in Sunday’s Washington Post about childhood hunger in the summertime when schools are closed @ ow.ly/mIVwg

 If you’d told me in 2008 that the fifth year of an Obama administration would witness child poverty increasing, I’d have been shocked. If you’d said it would happen with barely a word in response from the President, or other influential leaders, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

Here’s what’s most alarming: the silence and inaction is less a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of President Obama, or any one leader, and more an indictment of the now pervasive political culture both major parties have conspired to create.  Like a virulent virus, our political culture has evolved to value the power to survive, above any purpose for which such power might be put.  Governing has become resistant to those rare strains of bipartisanship that were known, at least on occasion, to prevail in the past. The result is polarization and paralysis, frustrating our ability to solve any problems, simple or complex. 

 Today’s political culture demands each party automatically oppose any proposal of the other party. It regards advocating for those outside the politically sacred middle class to be a sign of naiveté and weakness. It shuns even a whisper of sacrifice for others, with no appetite for giving voice to the marginalized or voiceless.  In other words, it is a culture the opposite of the revolutionaries whose spirit we honor on the Fourth of July. 

But one need not go back 250 years to make the point. A passage from Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address in 1937, carved in granite at the FDR Memorial, asserts:  “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”  In 2013 such words would be labeled a gaffe, the kind of self-inflicted political wound that pollsters and political consultants strive to avoid. 

That’s why the stakes for No Kid Hungry are enormously high. First and foremost is the opportunity to save and change kid’s lives.

We could also help affirm the philosophy we share with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  In CEO Patrick McCarthy’s foreword to the Kids Count report I heard echoes of our strategy for No Kid Hungry and Cooking Matters: “The gulf continues to widen between children growing up in strong, economically secure families who are embedded in thriving communities and children who are not.  Early childhood strategies alone will not successfully reduce disparities among children; we must also assist their parents. Given the consensus on the need to reduce the country’s long-term debt, simply adding more public dollars to existing strategies is neither wise nor feasible. Although we will need to invest more in early childhood, we should focus our resources on strategies with evidence of high returns in child well-being and healthy development. For example, we should weave together existing programs that support new parents …”

And maybe, just maybe, we can reignite the idea that our political system can accomplish good things, that the ideals behind America’s founding are more than just ideals, and that all our children can have the childhood they deserve, not just at Goose Rocks Beach on the Fourth of July but all across America every day of the year.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Leading health care CEO speaks out on link between hunger and health care

Several months ago Share Our Strength and Deloitte released a report about Deloitte’s extensive research on the connections between hunger and educational achievement, health care, and economic competitiveness. @ http://www.nokidhungry.org/pdfs/school-breakfast-white-paper.pdf

  Now a leading CEO of a health care company, Randy Oostra of ProMedica, has written an op-ed making the case that hunger is a health issue. @ http://www.toledoblade.com/Columnists/2013/06/16/In-Toledo-hunger-is-a-health-issue.html Oostra points out that “even one childhood experience with hunger can have a negative effect on health 10 to 15 years later. Hungry children are more likely to endure poor health and delayed development. Food insecurity is associated with lower scores on physical and mental-health exams.”

ProMedica is a No Kid Hungry ally helping us advance out strategy in Ohio and  Michigan.  And their CEO Randy Oostra is projecting a voice on behalf of the voiceless, and helping to change the conversation in ways that makes our work more accessible to a larger audience.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman's Commencement Speech at Colorado College

“I love my role model, Sojourner Truth, who was an illiterate but brilliant slave women who could not stand slavery or second-class treatment of women, but she never lost an opportunity to speak out and one day she got heckled by an old white man who stood up and said he didn’t believe anymore about her anti-slavery talk than for an old flea bite. She snapped back at him, and said, “That’s all right. The Lord willing, I am going to keep you scratching.” I think if we can all remember that if there are enough fleas biting the biggest dog, and there are enough of us who keep coming back when they flick some of us off, we will get gun safety regulations, we will end child poverty. You just have to bite whenever you see injustice, and if enough of us join that flea corps for children, the flea corps against gun violence, the flea corps against child poverty, we will transform our nation and make it un-American for any child to be poor, for any child to be illiterate, for any child to be unsafe and unable to grow up in our rich land.”

                                                -Marian Wright Edelman

              It’s commencement season and we should each have the right to circulate at least one commencement speech.  I’m choosing Marian Wright Edelman’s earlier this month at Colorado College. 

Like all commencement speeches there are a few unavoidable clichés, but Marian remains a brave and original thinker, in whom the passion for social justice has never diminished. She offers the graduates the seven lessons she shared with her three sons.  They are worth a read.

You can find both the video and the printed transcript  @ http://www.coloradocollege.edu/commencement/  

Monday, May 27, 2013

New Brookings Study of Suburban "Cul De Sac" Poverty

Just when you think you finally are beginning to understand the issues you’ve worked on for much your career, new research comes along that turns everything you thought you knew upside down and serves as powerful reminder to look beyond conventional wisdom. That was the experience I had while preparing to keynote a Brookings Institution session last week on suburban poverty.

The occasion was the publication of an important new book by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube called Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.  @ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/opinion/cul-de-sac-poverty.html?hp&_r=0

 Most of us have mental images of poverty concentrated in urban areas and hard to reach rural communities. But what the authors found is that  one in three poor Americans now live in the suburbs and that the pace has been growing so fast that in a number of regions- like Chicago, Houston, Seattle -  the rates of poverty in the suburbs are now actually greater than the rates of poverty in the city.

But the authors also found that anti-poverty programs haven’t evolved accordingly. “Policies to help poor places – as opposed to poor people – haven’t evolved much beyond the War On Poverty’s neighborhood-based solutions.”  Federal programs designed for urban areas, ranging from Community Health Centers to Promise Neighborhoods – are ill-suited for suburbs where poverty is more diffuse and services scattered.

Americans living in poverty have always found themselves to be vulnerable, voiceless, and often invisible to policymakers. As poverty has dissipated from our cities to our suburbs that has become even more the case. Kneebone and Berube have written an original and important book that gives voice to their needs.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Community Wealth Partners celebrates the spirit of "Dream Forward"

Last week Community Wealth Partners held a reception to celebrate the launch of its new name (changed from Community Wealth Ventures) and its new “Dream Forward”  icon.   

The event reunited several generations of colleagues and partners diverse in their interests but united in their belief that nonprofit organizations must commit to not only their own sustainability and scale, but to the multi-sector collaborations necessary to ensure that we solve problems at the magnitude that they exist.   

At a time when our national politics seem more polarized and paralyzed than ever, nonprofit and community organizations continue to achieve impact on issues such as hunger, education reform, and environmental protection.  Community Wealth Partners, under the leadership of our president Amy Celep, has been studying how organizations make the shift from incremental to transformational change.   The growth of Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry campaign has also been an important source of learning and best practice.

To learn more check out our new website @ http://communitywealth.com/

Monday, May 20, 2013

What We're Learning At State Level About How to Get Things Done

           The Boston Globe is publishing a series about Washington called “Broken City: Politics in An Age of Paralysis.” But while political pundits debate whether the President and Congress can accomplish anything on behalf of the American people, we’ve been proving that outside of Washington change is possible, especially at the state and local level, even on behalf of vulnerable and voiceless children.

            Last week Colorado Governor Hickenlooper signed “breakfast after the bell” legislation so that thousands of school kids will now have a stronger chance of succeeding in thanks to getting  nutritious food.  It had bipartisan support in the Colorado General Assembly. A day before the L.A. school board voted unanimously to support alternative and more accessible school breakfasts. Maryland approved a $1.8 million increase in Maryland Meals for Achievement.

            Such accomplishments at the state level are not accidental.  Unlike members of Congress, Governors have the action orientation of executives and are not fighting to preserve a legislative majority that determines everything from committee assignments to office space.  They don’t check with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell before deciding what to do.  That’s not to say there isn’t partisanship at the state level, or that it never hinders our work, but at least there are places where it is kept in check.

Share Our Strength made the strategic decision to shift our focus to where children actually live, learn and play, thus our state-based No Kid Hungry campaigns.  That doesn’t mean advocacy at the federal level is unimportant. To the contrary, upcoming battles to preserve SNAP will be vital. We’ll work for the SNAP Ed funding so important to Cooking Matters.  But national organizations working with governors, doing community organizing and providing technical assistance to local governments are few and far between.  Share Our Strength’s efforts there stand out.

There are leaders – Democrats and Republicans - who get things done. Sadly, few are in Washington. In the end our work in the states will not only help feed a lot of children, but may also show there are times and places when Democrats and Republicans can work together, to the mutual interest of each, and on behalf of the larger public interest.  If so, we’ll accomplish something even greater than ending childhood hunger. The glow of that achievement, and others built upon it, could light a path toward ending the polarization that paralyzes politics and government today.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Remarks To National Head Start Association Announcing Partnership to Reach 10,000 Head Start Parents with Cooking Matters At The Store

            Yesterday I spoke at the closing session of the 40th annual conference of the National Head Start Association, following inspiring remarks by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  A summary of my comments follow below.

            Thank you Yasmina Vinci for that very kind introduction and congratulations on all that you’ve achieved here this week. It is an honor to be in a room of advocates and champions for how to care for, mentor and bring along the generation of young people who will be our future.

            I recently heard some good advice along those lines from my eight year old son, who is in second grade and as we were walking to school bumped into his pre-school cousin Audrey .  They got into a conversation that my wife Rosemary and I could not quite hear, but when he put his hand on her shoulder to console her about something, we leaned in from behind and heard this wisdom from a second grader to a pre-schooler: “Listen, just enjoy the naps while they last.”   

            Here’s another bit of advice we’ve found to be true: if you want to make a difference in the lives of kids, then partner with National Head Start Association.  And so today Share Our Strength is announcing just such a partnership which includes a grant of $100,000 to ensure that 10,000 Head Start parents get Cooking Matters At the Store, our signature program for ensuring that moms and families have the information and resources they need to prepare healthy meals for growing children.  This will empower families by teaching them more about reading nutrition labels and unit pricing, so that they can make healthy and affordable choices for their meals. This is just a start.  We hope to grow the program in 2014 and 2015..

Cooking Matters at The Store is a critical component of our No Kid Hungry campaign. Hunger in America is a solvable problem. This is not Syria or Sudan or sequestration. Children are not hungry because of lack of food or lack of lack of food programs, but because of lack of access.  21 million children get a free or reduced price school lunch and all 21 million are also eligible for breakfast, but only 11 million get it. What does that tell you. It says that these children are not only vulnerable but voiceless.  You are there voice.

            This is an extraordinary time to be raising your voice on behalf of those who are voiceless. With so  many Americans in poverty or struggling and so many kids at risk.  Our focus at Share Our Strength and our window into this space is around the impact of food and nutrition and what we are seeing affirms the vital role that early investments here as well of course as in education and head start plays.

Every day we are learning and proving that while there are investments some think we can’t afford to make, we actually can’t afford not to make them when it comes to the education of our children. We can’t have a strong America with weak kids. We can’t have a healthy economy with unhealthy kids. We can’t have an America prepared to compete in the world without children prepared to learn.  Head Start and Cooking Matters are a big part of that solution.

As the writer James Baldwin said: “These are all our children and we shall profit by or pay for whatever they become.”  Let’s make sure that what they become is smart, and kind, and healthy, and wise, and that American does too.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Today Community Wealth Ventures changes its name to Community Wealth Partners, which reflects just one of many ways in which the organization has evolved toward greater transformational impact over the past few years.   See our new website and Dream Forward campaign @ http://communitywealth.com/blog/

In their landmark book BUILT TO LAST, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe one characteristic of successful companies as fidelity to core values but willingness for everything else to change.  Community Wealth Partners embraces precisely that balance.  Our dedication to the notion of creating the community wealth necessary to build stronger communities with more opportunity for all remains undiminished. As does our commitment to the critical building blocks of community wealth such as scaling and sustaining what works, building capacity, defining what success looks like, setting goals that are bold but believable, recognizing communications as strategy and advancing other insights we’ve developed.

But how we do the work has changed dramatically, as we’ve married our own experience with hundreds of clients over a decade and a half to our research about the characteristics of organizations that have succeeded in moving beyond incremental change to the truly transformational.  Increasingly the way we do our work is in partnership with clients and communities, meaning our commitment is not to deliver a report (that might sit on a shelf) but to deliver a transformational outcome that will change lives.  Like true partners our interests and our clients’ interest our aligned. We are not successful unless and until they are successful.

Throughout this evolution we’ve had the benefit of a partner of our own – our parent company Share Our Strength whose No Kid Hungry campaign led to rapid growth in impact, revenue, and size and established a trajectory based on aspiring to transformation that other nonprofit organizations have sought to follow.  The opportunity to learn from each other during this journey and to share what we’ve learned with you – is one of the assets Community Wealth Partners brings to every engagement.  That’s a process of change and growth that never ends. We hope you’ll choose to be part of it as well.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Upon Returning to Boylston Street After Boston's Worst Week

Saturday, April 20, 2013
Fate had our family far from Boston this past week. It was Nate’s spring break and we were out of the country.  The second blast occurred by the Starbucks I use as my Boston office. We’ve watched the last 6 marathons from that spot, just up the street from our apartment. That’s our connection.  That and friends who ran the race.

Today we returned and like thousands of others, walked over to the makeshift memorial at the finish line on still closed off Boylston Street.  A hushed crowd of families with children waited patiently to drop off flowers, flags, notes, photos, teddy bears and Red Sox caps. We stared down that empty, haunted avenue, where men in protective white suits could still be seen working on the sidewalk. Much of our vacation was spent glued to TV images of this spot. Even from 1500 miles away it was impossible not to feel connected to what was happening. 

I’d didn’t feel the same connection to the many comments about this proving how tough Boston is, or how the bombings showed what Boston was made of.  Certainly there had been no shortage of inspiring and heroic actions. But I’d never thought of Boston any other way.  After all, Boston is home to City Year, and Partners in Health, to Andy Husbands and Dan Pallotta, to Citizen Schools, and Facing History and Ourselves, to Gordon Hamersley and Jody Adams, to Cradles to Crayons and Project Bread, to Robert Lewis Jr. and Joanne Chang, to Jim and Karen Ansara and Ira Jackson.  If there was ever a city that had proven what citizenship means, what compassion looks like, what a social conscience can achieve, it was Boston before the marathon, not just after it.

But I believe people would have reacted the same way in New Orleans, Denver and Seattle, or in New Delhi, Dakar, or Singapore for that matter.  Moments of darkness shouldn’t blind us to the light in the rest of humanity. The impulse to single ourselves out for such qualities is natural.  But the impulse to recognize what we have in common with others, whether across the street or across the oceans, is even larger, and more needed now than ever.  

For too many here in Boston, the suffering doesn’t end with the end of the manhunt. The marathon’s digital clock can’t measure the years healing will take. For some life will revert to normal sooner than anyone thought possible, For others it never will. For the rest of us, here and around the nation, we go on, reminded about qualities of kindness and courage that will endure not because they surfaced in the aftermath of a few horrific moments but because they were there all along.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Targeting early investments in children for greater return

Last week Share Our Strength board member Scott Schoen arranged for me to have lunch with Massachusetts’ former Superintendent of Education Paul Reville, who was intrigued by the Deloitte report and especially the connections we are seeing between school breakfast and attendance. Afterward, Scott sent this article from the New York Times business section “Investments in Education May be Misdirected” @ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/business/studies-highlight-benefits-of-early-education.html 

The article reports on the work of Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman which shows that early interventions on behalf of kids are much more effective and much less expensive than later interventions.  While we’ve always assumed that to be true, Heckman’s work shows that the gap in cognitive performance “is there before kids walk into kindergarten” and doesn’t really improve over time notwithstanding the massive amounts of money spent on remedial efforts as kids get older.  Public policy lags behind such insights, with public spending on higher education three times greater than spending on preschool. 

Scott Schoen’s interest in Heckman’s research seemed consistent with his impressive track record as an investor accountable for producing significant return on investment,  Given what we are learning – and proving - about the connection between school breakfast and academic achievement, such research may suggest how we can best target our No Kid Hungry strategies to ensure that kids get the nutrition they need when they need it the most.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

School breakfast as a "force multiplier" for educational achievement

The growing movement to boost educational achievement via breakfast for school children is an example of how bipartisan pragmatism can triumph over politics to serve the public interest.  It may also be a model for other early investments in children that are effective in the short-term and save money in the long run.

Recently at 52nd Street Elementary School in L.A.  Principal Jimenez told us that after switching to breakfast-in-the-classroom, the number of students with perfect attendance increased from 250 to 439.  What I didn’t realize until further research was that attendance in K and 1st grade is a predictor of third grade reading levels. Grade level reading is a predictor of high school graduation.  Suddenly a stunning return on investment becomes visible on what once seemed a far and bleak horizon. 

Every 26 seconds a student drops out of school according to America’s Promise. The national high school graduation rate is 78.2 percent. Nearly one in five students does not graduate with their peers.  One in four African American and nearly one in five Hispanic students attend high schools where graduating is not the norm.  If we reach a 90% graduation rate by 2020, additional graduates will increase GDP by $6.6 billion annually.

Deloitte’s No Kid Hungry Social Impact Analysis affirms that 52nd Street Elementary School fits into a broader pattern linking breakfast with academic achievement. Governor O’Malley’s initiative – Maryland Meals for Achievement – is aptly named.

Yet for generations breakfast participation rates were stuck near 40%  because of difficulties getting kids to school early, and the stigma attached.. Though still a long way to go, national participation recently topped 50% for the first time. That’s partly because over the past five years something fascinating happened. Instead of giving up, or giving in to the traditional reflex of trying to outspend the problem, advocates began to out-think it.  Through innovation, local solutions, and public-private partnerships they developed an array of alternatives to breakfast in the cafeteria. Those that work best are now being scaled, especially Breakfast After the Bell which includes in-classroom as well as “grab-and-go” options.   This relatively simple, low-tech change yields enormous dividends.

If that were all the value we created it would be more than enough. But like a “gift with purchase” we not only get the results for children that we bought and paid for, but also learn valuable lessons about creating transformational social change.  Here are four:

n   Scaling What Works:  NKH has focused on existing but under-utilized programs with a track record of effectiveness and bipartisan support.  Scaling strategies such as reducing barriers, raising awareness, community organizing, and building political will, are challenging but more politically palatable than creating new programs from scratch. As Newark Mayor and New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker told the New York Times just last week: “The issue is not finding the answers.  It’s just growing them to scale.”  

n  Relying on local innovation and solutions:  ranging from financial incentives, competition, the Governor’s bully pulpit which can be advanced via dissemination of best practices.

n  “Force multipliers” which is what the military means by dramatically increasing the effectiveness of a given action.  As new research data enables us to connect the dots, we learn that breakfast is not only helping children grow and be healthy, but impacting attendance and potentially grade level reading and graduation rates.  This force multiplier broadens our base of support, creates allies and partners beyond the usual suspects, and improves prospects of success.

n  Accountability:  by setting specific, measurable goals, that have local and national buy-in, tracking and communicating results, and ensuring transparency, we differentiate ourselves and achieve a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace.

School breakfast is not a panacea to solve all of our problems. But it is a necessary foundation upon which to build.  As Governor Martin O’Malley told me during a recent visit to his office in Annapolis: “Small things done well make large things achievable.”  If we do this well there may be no limits to what we can achieve.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Letter from 52nd Street Elementary School in South L.A.

Just back from three days in California. The highlight was an early morning visit to the 52nd Street Elementary School in South L.A. which has 850 students and last October switched to breakfast-in-the-classroom notwithstanding initial resistance on the part of teachers and others. Principal Jimenez explained that before breakfast-in-the-classroom there were 250 children with perfect attendance records, but that now there are 439 with perfect attendance and the only thing that’s changed is breakfast.  Talk about measureable outcomes!

I had never before seen “perfect attendance” used as a metric. But I do know that of the numerous national organizations such as Communities in Schools, America’s Promise, City Year and College Summit doing heroic work addressing the nation’s drop-out crisis, all will tell you that attendance is a leading indicator of graduation rates.   In the second grade classroom we visited our recent Deloitte report on the link between school breakfast and academic achievment came to life. @ http://www.nokidhungry.org/pdfs/school-breakfast-white-paper.pdf