Sunday, October 11, 2015

Keynote at Texas Hunger Initiative Summit: Together at The Table, Baylor University

For those who kindly asked, some excerpts of my comments at the Texas Hunger Initiative Summit: Together at The Table, Baylor University, October 8, 2015, as best I could remember and capture them:

First, thank you Bill Ludwig for that introduction and thank you Jeremy Everett and the team at THI for inviting me to join you today. I’m inspired by your commitment, thrilled that we are partnering through the Social Innovation Fund, and eager to learn from your leadership.

I am deeply grateful to all of you for the work you do.  It means a lot because you have the ability to help us solve a very solvable problem, and impact many other issues we care about.  If we don’t seize that opportunity, the very real consequence is that we will be letting a lot of kids get hurt, kids right here in Texas, as well as around the U.S.  We end up robbing them of their health, educational opportunities, of their full potential, their future.  We end up stealing from children even though we are the last nation on earth that ought to be doing such a thing. I know that you and I share the conviction that America is better than that.  Hunger in America is a social justice issue

This is an extraordinary time.  For the first time in history we’ve had 45 million Americans living below the poverty line for three years in a row. We’ve crossed a threshold where a majority, 51% of public school students, now live in poverty. Kids in families with incomes under $25,000 have 6% smaller brain surface area than kids from upper income families.  That’s based on pure correlations of MRI brain scans and family income. That’s been documented by the best neuroscientists working in America today at Columbia University.  At a time when the world seems more dangerous than ever, 3 out of 4 17-24 year olds are not able to join the military.

But as Pope Francis said during his visit just a few days ago, speaking about refugees but applicable in this context as well:  “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”  I’ve had that opportunity to see faces and hear the stories as I’ve traveled the country from one end to the other these past 12 months with the National Commission on Hunger established by Congress.

“God squeezes but he doesn’t choke you” said one elderly man when asked how he survives on only $800 a month.  Or as one immigrant in El Paso near our border with Mexico told me “There is light in our streets but darkness in our homes”  The food bank director from New Mexico explained that “we are no longer in the emergency food assistance business. We are feeding the same families 7-8 times a year, and so it is chronic hunger and chronic economic food insecurity.”

The good news is that hunger is a solvable problem. Why? Americans are not hungry for the reasons that people around the world are hungry. It is not war or famine or drought. We have food in abundance and food programs too. But not everyone is accessing them, especially kids. For example

22 million kids get a free or reduced price school lunch. All are eligible for breakfast and summer meals.  But only 11 million get breakfast and 3 million get summer. It has been bought and paid for for all of them. What a huge opportunity.  In NY, just a few months ago, the mayor and city council agreed to put $18 million in the budget to move 500 elementary schools to our breakfast in the classroom, or breakfast after the bell strategy. That adds 370,000 kids to school breakfast. 

This is typical of the results Share Our Strength is getting with its No Kid Hungry strategy.

-          We’ve helped bring about the greatest increase in participation in childhood hunger programs since the programs began


-          We have demonstrated a “school breakfast dividend” in terms of better math scores, better attendance (Deloitte study) and more instructional time (Virginia No Kid Hungry summit.)


-          We have authored a comprehensive reform of summer feeding to reverse the abysmally low participation rates, and have won bipartisan support for it, including co-sponsorship by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


-          We’ve solidified partisan support for breakfast after the bell from Nevada Governor Sandoval to Colorado Governor Hickenlooper.


-          Taken together these amount to a revolution in the nation’s commitment to feeding hungry kids

Most of these Americans are not only vulnerable, they are voiceless Our real opportunity is to help lift their voices and our own.

We must help lift the voices that say we will never let politics or bureaucracy of indifference stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal.

We must lift voices that say the fight against hunger is not part of some culture war that has to do with how you feel about the role of government or how you feel about poor people, but one of the great humanitarian, faith, and social justice issues of our time.

We must be the voice that says Congress needs to pass a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that reforms the summer meals program so that summer EBT and non-congregate feeding can get meals to kids.

            We must be the voice that says we will not only feed kids but we will marshal the will to prevent hunger in the first place.

And we must help lift the voices that say: We can’t have a strong America with weak kids

We must be the voice that echoes James Baldwin who said “these are all our children and we shall either profit by or pay for whatever they become.”

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