Sunday, November 30, 2014

Small milestones, historic achievements on the path to ending hunger

          When New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie last week signed a breakfast-after-the-bell bill I got excited about such a milestone. 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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Reminder This Thanksgiving That Charity is Not Enough

NY Times contributing writer Tom Edsall has a new column worth reading this Thanksgiving morning, examining the recent mid-term election results and the changing demographics that will impact presidential politics in 2016.  In looking at the future of the Democratic Party he concludes: “Unless the Democrats develop a coherent, comprehensive strategy for the have-nots, it won’t matter whether the party’s nominee is Clinton, Webb or anyone else.”

            Edsall quotes potential presidential candidate Jim Webb on how poverty and lack of opportunity signal our having “drifted to the fringes of the very inequality our Constitution was meant to prevent.”  And while Edsall focused on the Democrats, the broader point is applicable to all Americans regardless of political party.

There is always a lot of commentary around Thanksgiving about counting our blessings and remembering those less fortunate. Usually it’s in the form of an appeal for increased charity.  But Edsall’s column is a kind of wake-up call that public policy must change to effectively address poverty on the scale that it exists, and that if doesn’t, the “have-nots” may at long last evolve from charitable cause to transformative political force.  For those of us with much to be grateful for this holiday season, it’s another reminder that more charity, though necessary and good, is not enough.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Increasing civic participation as political participation shrinks

Two recent articles reinforce a special dimension of Share Our Strength and so many other nonprofits.  The first is an analysis of the November elections from the Center for Responsive Politics  @ arguing that: “The real story of the election’s campaign finance chapter was not which side had more resources, but that such a large chunk of the cost was paid for by a small group of ultra-wealthy donors using outside groups to bury voters with an avalanche of spending.”

            The second in the Washington Post this weekend is by retired General Stan McChrystal, who chairs the Franklin Project on whose board I sit. @ General McChrystal calls for a system of national and community service that exceeds anything we’ve seen so far.  Turnout for the recent election was the lowest for a midterm in more than 70 years… We lack common experiences that bind us as a people. We have lost our confidence in doing big things as a nation…. We need to support leaders who ask more of us and not those who simply promise us more….Imagine if, during the next election season, candidates at all levels competed to propose serious ideas for the civic transformation of America.”

            One thing we do at Share Our Strength that may be even more important than feeding kids is creating opportunities for people to make a difference in their communities.  As political participation narrows, we make broader civic participation possible. Every Arby’s and Denny’s customer who makes a donation during our Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, every chef volunteer, Cooking Matters instructor, school breakfast petition signer, and donor large or small, demonstrates that Americans will engage in making America stronger when they believe their actions will lead to results.

That’s not a substitute for the necessary policy change that political participation can achieve. But it is a way of building back confidence that change is possible, that community can be created, and that the voices of organized citizens will be heard. It means every aspect of our sector’s work is a chance to also restore hope that making a difference makes a difference.  So let’s make every moment count.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why NY Mayor de Blasio should lead, not just wait and follow, the national movement for school breakfast after the bell

           Yesterday’s NY Times editorial  ( urging NY Mayor de Blasio to fulfill his campaign promise and make available breakfast in the classroom was the culmination of the first phase of a campaign to raise awareness and put some pressure on the mayor. De Blasio’s own allies counseled that without some of the pressure that public attention brings, it’s very hard for such an issue to emerge from the multiple priorities competing for the Mayor’s attention.

The editorial  also helped to launch a second phase of even greater grassroots support that included the singer P!NK tweeting the editorial to her 25 million supporters as part of a broad based social media effort to ensure this common sense low cost solution gets implemented.

At a time much of the country is dispirited over the seeming failure of government to get things to work as they should Mayor de Blasio has a golden opportunity to demonstrate how a program that does work can catapult New York City from last to first in the nation in school breakfast participation, thereby making America stronger by making our kids stronger. And he can do so in a way that doesn’t cost NYC money but will instead bring millions of dollars into the city.

A national trend is growing in favor of breakfast after the bell.  Given the success of other large cities around the country, it's probably only a matter of time before it takes hold in New York City.  At worst, the Mayor should follow this trend. At best, the editorial makes a compelling case for why he should help lead.  A strong New York requires strong kids - fit, fed, and ready to learn. A strong America demands no less.

Nonprofits and Voter Apathy: Missing The Forest for The Trees

            You have to wonder if some of us who think of ourselves as change agents sometimes miss the forest for the trees, like during last week’s election which had the worst voter turnout in 72 years at only 36.3%.   See today’s New York Times editorial @  My own very unscientific sampling found not a single nonprofit or advocacy organization website that was reminding or urging people to get out to vote.

            There’s not an issue from poverty and hunger to arts and culture that isn’t profoundly impacted by the public policy set by our elected officials.   The nonprofit sector speaks to stakeholders who care about change. But if we are so myopic as to only talk about our own specific issues, without stepping back to urge anyone who listens to vote, we miss a big opportunity to play a constructive role in combating voter apathy.  That’s not to suggest we become partisan advocates, but rather civic champions.

            Nonprofit achievement is undermined by poor participation in democracy. And participation has become so low that it will take all of us to change it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Poverty, Hunger and "Dark Money"

           Predictions about which issues will shape the agenda of the new Congress have dominated the news since last Tuesday elections.  Poverty and hunger have not been on the lists, even though 45 million Americans have been stuck below the poverty line for three consecutive years.  

One reason, as the NY Times editorialized on Sunday, is that “The next Senate was just elected on the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election…. In the 2010 midterms, when this practice was just getting started, $161 million was spent by groups that did not disclose donations. In this cycle it was up to at least $216 million…”  Neither party’s wealthy donors have a deep understanding of poverty or the desire to make it a political priority.

Against this backdrop of unprecedented amounts of special interest money being spent to buy elections on behalf of those who have everything, Share Our Strength and A Place At The Table are partnering to get millions of dollars of media donated to build political will on behalf of those who have almost nothing at all, not even enough to eat.

It’s not sufficient to counter the vast amounts of money being spent to keep elected officials focused on other issues. But it’s a start, and a critically important “first” in the effort to end hunger.

It’s symptomatic of our broken political system that much of the post-election debate is over which party’s wealthiest donors – represented by the Koch brothers on one hand and by Tom Steyer on the other - got the better return on their investment, and not about how either party can best represent the dreams and aspirations of all Americans from richest to poorest. The latter question holds the seed of the political revolution that still needs to happen.