When New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie last week signed a breakfast-after-the-bell bill I got excited about such a milestone. http://tinyurl.com/k7geptn I inquired about details and whether it would significantly increase school breakfast participation toward our No Kid Hungry goals.
My excitement was tempered upon learning that the bill does not provide any funding, nor include mandates. It directs the state departments of Agriculture and Education to track participation and assist schools in moving toward breakfast after the bell. It’s not a muscular approach, more like cheerleading than actually moving the ball down field, so not a big deal.
So that’s how I thought about it until having a chance over the long weekend to read The Bill of The Century, by Clay Risen, about passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a child of the 1960’s, civil rights is burned into my memory as dominating the national conversation. But Risen’s book argues that was often not the case, and it evokes similarities to challenges we face in elevating hunger on the national agenda. Consider these excerpts:
“It is striking that on the eve of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights as a cause was in every way stymied, compromised, and ignored by the government and large swaths of the American public.”
“At the outset of 1963, few expected anything more than token federal action on civil rights, and even then no one expected it to pass.”
“Complicating things further was the fact that there was no single unified civil rights movement, but many.”
The book’s larger take-away is that while we associate the civil rights bill with Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson, it was actually numerous lessor known leaders and actions, over many years, that made such success possible. Many legislative, political and policy initiatives that were whittled down to symbolic victories considered hollow by the most fervent activists, were important, in retrospect, in changing the political climate. “We must remember there was no single central character, no prime mover, but dozens of contributors. And while this lesson is particularly true for the Civil Rights Act, it is also true for the history of American lawmaking in general.”
Risen’s subtitle, “The Epic Battle for The Civil Rights Act” is telling for “epic” connotes a long and extended narrative that embodies many small contributions, not just a few large heroic actions. In that light, the New Jersey school breakfast bill, while not a landmark achievement, becomes a piece of a larger mosaic. So too will the No Kid Hungry campaign itself, which is our laser sharp focus now but just one milestone in our larger vision and mission to address hunger and poverty here in the U.S. and around the world.