Monday, August 24, 2015

Public-Private Partnerships at the Heart of Our Success with No Kid Hungry Campaign


This weekend the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported on how a small grant from Share Our Strength will have a big impact on First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe’s effort to add 100,000 kids to the school breakfast program in Virginia in the next 2½ years.  It is such a strong representation of how we forge public-private partnerships that combine state, federal, nonprofit and business resources to get things done for hungry kids. See @
            The amount of this specific grant was small, but it leveraged hundreds of thousands of additional dollars. And First Lady McAuliffe is squarely on message about the educational advantages of this type of bipartisan approach.  We are seeing similar results in Nevada, Colorado, Arkansas, Maryland, California and numerous other states. 

           We still have a long way to go to get to done, but this type of public-private collaboration that has always been Share Our Strength’s signature style will get us there. Along with setting big goals, holding ourselves accountable to specific outcomes, focusing on children and remaining bipartisan, it is a critical ingredient of the “secret sauce” we can someday bring to other challenges of hunger and poverty.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bearing witness in Appalachia to mothers and babies

In response to my post below about poverty and brain development, my colleague Jen Keleba wrote the following which I found much more interesting than what I wrote. With her permission I am reprinting it here:

I went on a site visit in rural Kentucky to pretty much your most typical Appalachia scenario: double-wide with tattered curtains and a bursting front porch; everything perched in a dirt yard strewn with rusted-out American-made models up on cinder blocks; the requisite dog-on-a-chain spinning in impotent circles of rage. It actually looked quite a bit like the area where I grew up, which was startling in and of itself to realize that I came from a place most Americans would want to “help.”

Anyway…the mom was essentially stranded on this land. Her husband worked so he had the only car, and money to buy gas was strictly budgeted for the work commute and nothing else. Her own education stopped at 6th grade, but she had somehow found her way into this program for her kids to have a Save the Children program officer come bring books to her children and teach her to read to them.

I was holding the baby, who was about 18 months old, as he mouthed at the corner of a board book and waited for the “lesson” to begin. But it never really did. The program officer and the mom ended up talking mostly about household food budget and tips on how to make the dollar stretch. There was a lot of talk about “What have the children been eating these days” and depending on the answer, the program officer would make suggestions about deals she’d seen in the produce section, or she’d relate a family dinner she’d made that had lasted for three nights. It was all done in a very casual “visiting” manner. I remember wondering, “Um…are we ever going to get around to reading to this kid?”

At the time, I just didn’t get it. What I heard was two women chatting about household economics and trading recipes like my grandma and her friends on a Sunday afternoon, none of which was in the early childhood education curriculum we were marketing and selling on a national level to funders. It wasn’t until the final five or so minutes of the visit that we actually pulled out a book and worked with the mother and baby to read together. And then I saw it…the whole demeanor of the mom had changed. When we’d arrived she’d been suspicious and stiff (certainly a result of my presence to “document” the trip) to the point where she’d been awkward holding her own child. By the end, she’d relaxed into a smiling, nurturing position and was reading, though with some struggle, to her baby. As we left, she thanked the program officer for the food tips with a smile and a wave, and a promise to keep reading to the baby until next time.

You probably saw this coming from a mile off, but it took me longer than I care to admit to realize that until that mom could figure out how and what she was going to feed her child, it didn’t matter how many books we pushed under her nose. In the order of importance, answering her child’s hunger came before all else. Hunger was the immediate problem that could not wait; reading, in that case, could.

It was a profound turning point for me in understanding the poverty gap in education…heck…even in understanding better so many of the people I grew up with. Your email this morning reminded me of that lesson.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

letter from the hippocampus

            Like a SWAT team tracking escaped convicts, scientists investigating the damage that poverty inflicts on children are utilizing forensics to close in on the culprit.

New research more strongly links poverty, brain development and reduced academic achievement.  In April I wrote about the ravages of inequality on America’s children, as evident in correlations between low income and smaller brain size.  See @  On July 20, a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Seth Pollak published findings in JAMA Pediatrics (Journal of the American Medical Association) that went farther than before. 

Analyzing MRI scans of 389 children and teens over six years; they found that poverty affected the structure of three parts of the brain related specifically to academic achievement: the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the hippocampus. 15-20% of the gap in test scores between low income and upper income kids can be explained by structural differences in those three parts of the brain. Kids living in families below the poverty level had 8-10% less gray matter in the regions of the brain associated with learning and scored 4-7 points lower on standardized tests.

The new study is the first to connect these findings. "Our research suggests that specific brain structures tied to processes critical for learning and educational functioning (e.g., sustained attention, planning, and cognitive flexibility) are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty, such as stress and limited stimulation and nutrition," the authors note. "It was stunning to see the circle closed—the delay in brain growth explains the achievement deficit in poor children," says Pollak.

The “aha!” is not so much the correlation but the granularity and specificity of imaging that makes such correlations irrefutable, and harder to look the other way.

 When it comes to poverty, our national Achilles’ heel is the habit of “out of sight, is out of mind.”  Brain size is a microcosm for it. Talk about invisible!  If not for neuro-science we would never know that specific damage that hunger and poverty inflict. Until now we never had an unobstructed view. Instead we had to speculate, surmise, make a leap of faith. Graphing MRI’s to income and test scores makes what is fuzzy more sharp and clear.  

Nature gave us all hard skulls, just not hard enough to protect what’s inside from politics, bureaucracy, indifference and neglect.  But the good news, as JAMA said in an editorial, is that the sensitivity of the brain (what scientists call “plasticity”) to positive as well as negative “lends credence to the idea that interventions to remediate adverse early environments may have some success in altering this neurobiological tie.”

These discoveries add urgency to everything we do.  It puts Share Our Strength on the front lines not only of feeding kids but also increasing educational opportunity. Whether you are working on our Hunger Free Summer for Kids legislation, Dine Out, corporate partners, innovation, culinary, Cooking Matters, or other vital relationships, it’s more clear than ever that a generation of children across the country depend on your efforts.