Monday, December 5, 2016

Remarks at our Summer Meals Summit on December 5

            Thank you all for being here and special thanks to the team at Share Our Strength – Derrick, Stephanie, Duke and Courtney and so many others, as well as Arbys and C&S Wholesale Grocers for sponsoring and making possible this convening.  I am also so grateful to Secretary Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary Kevin Concannon not only for being here today, but for the long and compassionate leadership you’ve provided and which we are going to sorely miss. You’ve made such a difference in the lives of America’s kids.

            The next few days will be rich in information about how we can be more effective and successful in ensuring that the vital nutrition kids receive during the school year is not cruelly and damagingly interrupted over the summer.  The expertise that has come together in this room is unparalleled. If there is any group anywhere that can make it happen, this is it.  

I want to focus my remarks on what’s at stake in our success, and how we navigate the new political environment.

            I’ll begin my sharing some words from some young students that made a big impression on me. Like many of you I spend a lot of time in schools. And recently while I was speaking to a 6th grade class, I was asked these two questions: “Are you able to serve the children and families you work with, without embarrassing them?” and “Do you get to seen and know the children and families you serve and do they feel seen or do they feel invisible to you?”

            It seems to me that these two questions sum up what we are fighting for and why:   Ensuring that every child is visible, every child knows and sees and feels our commitment to them, and that we make these investments in ways that don’t discriminate or embarrass, but rather honor and lift up children and ensure their dignity.   That’s the best argument I know for ensuring that summer meals work for every child that’s eligible – and they are not wondering whether their food will come from when out of school, nor subject to the vagaries of emergency food assistance.

            Tomorrow will be a month since the election of Donald Trump as President.  Many of us have been asked what the election results mean for our work and for the goal of achieving No Kid Hungry. And while a lot is still unknown, I think it means at least the following five things:

First, our focus will remain where it has been so productively aimed these past few years: on the states and governors, both Democrat and Republican, who are responsible for executing programs like school breakfast and summer meals. In a new political environment where many essential resources are at risk of going away for children, the public food and nutrition programs which have such a track record of bipartisan support and effectiveness, may offer states one of the most economical and impactful way of investing in healthy and well educated kids.  And as you and I have seen, at the local level citizens are less ideological, more pragmatic, more willing to invest and sacrifice for kids in their community. As much as we hope for shortcuts, we may have to continue the long hard slog that has led to an increase of tens of thousands of summer meals sites.

Second, we must rededicate ourselves to bearing witness, to seeking a better understanding of our country and its citizens and their needs, to understanding the truth of America, which includes 31 million kids at or near poverty, and many families struggling in an economy that does not provide them with good paying jobs. You are in of the most powerful positions in this country because you can see, hear, feel and touch what hunger looks like. And you must make it your job to take others – civic leaders, business leaders, journalists – into the community to bear witness too.

Third, although the political pendulum has swung dramatically, Washington can’t get much more partisan than it has already been these past 8 years, with one side proposing and the other all but automatically opposing.  But that hasn’t stopped us from working in a bipartisan fashion on behalf of children and child nutrition, and we will continue to do so.

Fourth, the best defense is a good offense. Our No Kid Hungry community must do more than oppose proposed policy changes although oppose them we will when it comes to threats to children. We must remain on offense, and not be afraid to advocate for big ideas or even expensive ones, as opposed to retrenching to only focus on fighting budget cuts or bad proposals.  If there is greater economic growth and massive infrastructure investment, then we will need a strong, healthy and educated workforce to make it happen and sustain it.  An element of any infrastructure plan should be to pay for school conversions to breakfast in the classroom, building summer meals sites, revamping WIC clinics, and investing in early childhood health and education.  While our values remain the same, there are more politically savvy ways to frame our role in the national conversation, emphasizing Return On Investment, human capital, efficiency, which we should have been talking about all along.

            Fifth and finally, our political culture has evolved from unpleasantly divided to unacceptably ugly.  It is undeniable that we’ve seen bigotry, misogyny and racism become more accepted and normalized. Leave aside where the blame may lie, but make no mistake, this not only stands in the way of our specific goals, but it also transcends them in importance. We have an obligation to make the values that have always been implicit in our work, explicit. We need not and should not do so in a partisan, divisive or finger pointing way.  But we must say out loud that our values of inclusiveness and diversity mean that when we say No Kid Hungry we mean No Kid. No city kid and no rural kid. No Baptist child and no Muslim child. No fifth generation American child and no immigrant American child. No straight kid and no gay kid.  No white or black or Latino kid. And while we must work with anyone, from any party, from any Administration who is willing to join us in combatting the politics and bureaucracy and indifference that too often stand between a hungry child and a healthy meal, there will be no ambiguity about our values.

            I urge all of our colleagues in the public, nonprofit and civic sectors to do the same. Whether their work is poverty or climate change, health care or hunger, We face a new moral imperative. It’s a tough assignment. We’ve succeeded by sticking to our knitting. And it is tempting to continue to do so.  Speaking out against hate speech is the job of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations. It’s their core competence, not ours.  But when such behavior begins to flourish out in the open as it has and is, we can’t leave it to others to defend the very people we seek to serve, and work alongside.   The universal human dignity that those 6th graders so keenly understood must be the underpinning for what we do and how we do it.

            So thank you for the experience and wisdom you bring here today. Thank you for the hard work and commitment that will be required going forward.   Remember the words of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks that are inscribed on the plaque we will be presenting to Secretary Vilsack: “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude. And bond. “

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