Wednesday, October 21, 2015

One Step Forward (Science), Two Steps Back (Politics)

Last weekend, the Financial Times published a column called “How To Invest in Babies” @  It conveyed the excitement of discovering what others have long known: investing early in children, in the form of good nutrition, early education, language development, and a nurturing environment favorably impacts their brain development and well-being, and yields a great return.

The article references correlations between child development and family income. The bottom line, not surprisingly, is that rich kids fare better.

But the article misses a more important point: Advances in science and technology have made more information available to us than at any time in human history about the consequences of how we invest or fail to invest in young children, but we have a larger gap than ever before between what we know and what we do about it. That gap, our “full potential gap,” weakens America’s schools, health care, economy, competitiveness and national security.  

Magnetic resonance imaging, genome mapping, and sophisticated monitoring open windows into the chemistry and biology of child development that could not even be imagined a few years ago. For the first time we know about brain development at the cellular level, about nutrition, about the role of parents in the development of language, about the benefits of other forms of stimulation. 

Imagine the outrage that would exist in other areas of society if we failed to act on what we know.  If there were a cure for breast cancer but inertia stalled its delivery… if research about the safety value of seatbelts, air bags or bike helmets had been read and put aside. But because poor children are invisible to most of us and voiceless, we are less quick to act, if we act at all. The powerful economic interests that pervert campaign financing and shape the legislative agenda focus more on perpetuating inequality than on investing in kids. And so the gap grows.

When running for president in 1960, one of John Kennedy’s most powerful campaign lines was: “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival …” He was referring to our competition with the Soviet Union over deployment of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The “missile gap” became a potent campaign issue. The same words are true today  applied to our full potential gap. We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival…  Our politics need to catch up with our science if we are to ever close it.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

L.A. Success Story

             Share Our Strength's no Kid Hungry dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on Wednesday night was a star-studded event with Jeff Bridges, Rachel Bilson, Darby Stanchfield, Blake Michaels and Sarah Hyland among others. It was a great financial success, thanks in part to so many celebrity chefs sharing their strength, Janet Hayes of Williams-Sonoma who we honored, and the generosity of  Jeff Skoll and Participant Media.

            With so much glitter under one roof, one could miss the real star of the evening: the L.A Unified School District which has achieved school breakfast participation of 102% of lunch participation, making it first in the nation. Congrats to the L.A. Fund for Public Education, California Food Policy Advocates, and the others who made this possible.  If the rest of California moved from the 54% average it is at today to our 70% guidepost we would add another 420,000 kids to school breakfast    

L.A.’s success is important for three reasons:

-          First and foremost, 270,000 kids in L.A. schools are starting their day with a breakfast that helps ensure they are ready to learn and will make them stronger, healthier, more attentive.

-          L.A.U.S.D. is a large and complex school system. If they can move to breakfast after the bell, so can any school system.

-          L.A. redefines what is possible, it not only sets the bar high, it lays the foundation for setting the next bar even higher.
Next week Share Our Strength will engage in discussions with California officials about a major expansion of our No Kid Hungry campaign.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tuesday's Democratic Presidential Debate - what they candidates say and don't say.

Because I was once deeply engaged in presidential politics – before there was a Trump Tower let alone a Trump campaign , events like the upcoming Democratic debate hold an abiding fascination for me (as have the Republican debates).  Add in that Hillary Clinton has been a Share Our Strength supporter and spoke at an Autumn Harvest Dinner, Martin O’Malley a No Kid Hungry champion and lifelong friend, and Jim Webb a traveling companion to Vietnam when I worked in the Senate to help normalize relations with Vietnam – and you can see why I’ll be tuning in Tuesday evening.

There will be plenty of opportunity to analyze what the candidates say. I’m even more interested in what they don’t say. Because with work like ours focusing on those who are economically and politically marginalized – one of the biggest challenges is getting politicians to even acknowledge such issues. 

Try to keep count of how many times the candidates say they’ll fight for the middle class.  Compare that to how much you hear about fighting for people living in poverty, for vulnerable and voiceless children, for the need for Americans to sacrifice, or make investments that won’t pay off until the long-term.   

Candidates don’t win many votes talking about such things.  But if they don’t talk about them, when they get elected they don’t have a mandate or perceived responsibility to act on them. And so the cycle continues.

There’s still a long way until the general election in November 2016.  As the impact of our No Kid Hungry campaign grows, as we increasingly demonstrate that childhood hunger is solvable, as we prove there can be bipartisanship on such issues, such encouraging news could help politicians not be afraid to talk about such things, and not be afraid to envision a better America.

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.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Louisianans Have Long Memories

            Louisianans have long memories.

            Last week the Share Our Strength board met in New Orleans and participated in two days of site visits with other partners and supporters.

Ten years ago, within days of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, philanthropists and civic leaders poured into the region with promises of help. We traveled there as well. We committed that while we could not be the largest donor, we would stay the longest and be there until the recovery was complete. It wasn’t “on strategy” for us to do so, but an event as enormous as Katrina didn’t fit anybody’s strategy. My take-away from last week’s visit, beyond the always incredible food and hospitality, is about how small acts, outside of the spotlight and with no motivation beyond trying to help, despite long odds, can have memorable long-term consequences.

-            93 year old Leah Chase remembered how Ashley Graham of our staff helped her re-open her famous restaurant after Katrina. 


-          The Volunteers of America remembered the Share Our Grants that enabled them to create a social enterprise to make and distribute school meals.


-          Dickie Brennan of the legendary Brennan restaurant family remembered how we helped fisheries and restaurants get back on their feet.


-          The principal of the William Fisher charter school remembers how Rhonda Jackson of our team got them the grants they needed to implement breakfast in the classroom.

Share Our Strength’s past and future come together in New Orleans. It’s a place where we transitioned from grant maker to a focused No Kid Hungry strategy to increase participation in school breakfast and summer meals. Much more remains to be done. When I asked the vice-principal of one school what other issues impacted the kids readiness to learn, he told us that 48 of the 611 students are homeless, that the fathers of two students has been murdered in just the last three weeks, and so “the kids bring lots of issues from home into the classroom with them.”

For me, the biggest take-away of all is that we need to have a long memory too. The seeds we planted a decade ago continue to bear fruit in communities across the region, as Rhonda Jackson and our team continue to re-plant and re-invest. We especially need a long memory when it comes to taking risks, not letting strategy ever stand in the way of doing what is right, and sometimes being willing to start down a road even if you can’t see all the way to the end of it.