E4: Billy Shore on Politics, Food and our Children’s Future
If you had the opportunity to shape the country’s agenda for addressing hunger, what solutions would you suggest and how would you drive this needed change? The Leading Voices in Food interviews Billy Shore, executive chairman of No Kid Hungry and its parent organization Share Our Strength.
When you and your sister founded Share Our Strength, and after you after you’d spent considerable time in politics, what led you to take on such an ambitious endeavor?
Well, there are a couple of things, I guess, behind the creation of Share Our Strength. One was, you know, my experience in politics led me to believe that there were a tremendous number of talented people around the country who wanted to contribute to solutions in our community. Politics might not have been the vehicle for them and as politics has become more specialized and required people to write big checks and donate to political action committees, that’s not for everybody. But as I traveled around the country working for Senator Bob Kerrey before that, Senator Gary Hart, I was just struck by how, you know, how many people had something to share, literally had a strength to share. And so the question became, could we create some vehicle, some platform for them to do that? And the issue of hunger had always been one of interest to me. It just seems so incongruous, in our country. I remember when I first started working on the Hill, there had been a physician’s taskforce, a group of doctors who’d gone to Mississippi and some others who’d worked with Bobby Kennedy as he toured Mississippi Delta in Appalachia. And it just always seemed like this is not something that we should have to have in the United States.
Can you describe the work of Share Our Strength?
So Share Our Strength is really focused on childhood hunger in particular. We feel like that, of all the issues that we could be working on in hunger or poverty, that it is the most solvable. For many years we were probably better known for the entrepreneurial ways in which we generated funds. So we’re a nonprofit organization that works with a lot of businesses and corporations to, the way we think about it, not just redistribute wealth but create wealth. But it’s a different kind of wealth, what we call it community wealth because it goes back into the communities that we serve. So we do lots of cause related marketing campaigns, lots of food and wine events with the culinary community. We started early on organizing chefs and restaurant tours because they made their livelihoods from feeding people and we thought they would feel a connection to the issue of hunger. And so we make grants to about 400 other nonprofits who deal with hunger around the United States. And over the last eight to 10 years we’ve used our grants and whatever influence we have to try to steer those organizations towards focusing on some very specific milestones as they relate to childhood hunger. Particularly getting kids enrolled in programs like school breakfast, like summer meals, programs, even the afterschool and supper programs.
It seems like one of the few issues that everybody can get behind almost no matter what their political persuasion.
While certainly for childhood hunger, there’s a lot of bipartisan support for it. And I think people recognize that children are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the plight that they’re suffering. The challenge, and so we work, you know, across the aisle. We are very bipartisan. We have colleagues in the anti-hunger community that, you know, if a member of Congress or a governor or others disagree with them, they tend to, you know, find a way to thump them. We don’t do that. We were more bridge builders, I think than we are bomb throwers. But the challenge is that although everyone is in favor of feeding a hungry child, not everybody is in favor of supporting that child’s parents. And the truth is that the best thing we could do for children is to make sure that their families are supported. That a mom and dad have jobs, have healthcare, have affordable housing, have the things they need so that they can feed their own kids. We’re getting better at that. You know, there’s a man named Arthur Brooks at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the things he said that really struck me is we’ve made poverty more bearable through programs like school lunch and school breakfast and many of the things we support but we haven’t necessarily made it more escapable. And we need to find ways to do both. Share Our Strength has done a good job of making it more bearable. We made sure that kids at least have at a minimum the food they need to have a chance of doing well in school.
So you’re making it easier for parents to feed their children. But it sounds like much of your work is being done through the schools. So how do those two things square with one another?
Yeah. Well, our focus really has been schools and so for the last eight or 10 years we’ve worked with governors, with mayors, with school superintendents to make sure that schools are doing everything they can to enroll every eligible child into programs like school breakfast and summer meals, even when the schools are closed. About half of eligible kids have been participating eight or nine years ago. Now it’s closer to 60 percent. I’m pretty confident that we’ll get it to 70 percent in the next couple years. In a triage sense that’s been our first and most focused effort. But now that we’ve had as much success as we’ve had, we’ve added 3 million kids to school breakfast. We built tens of thousands of summer meal sites when the schools are closed. We’re starting to think about how do we not only support the child, but you know, put the parents or the whoever the adult caregiver is in a place to be able to help these kids. And that’s one of our next challenges. We need to think carefully about how to do that.
You host a weekly podcast series yourself called Add Passion and Stir that brings together high profile chefs with changemakers to talk about the central role that food plays in social justice. Can you tell us a little bit more about the social justice part of this?
Well, you know, hunger and food are really related to almost everything else that we care about. They’re related to not only the health of somebody who’s hungry and their nutritional levels, but they’re also related to their ability to focus and do well at school. They’re related to the environment in really profound ways. The way we grow and harvest our food has a tremendous impact on environmental issues. And you know, the group that almost always suffers when we’re not attentive to the social justice side of this, and this is the reason I think it’s such an important social justice issue, are those who are most vulnerable and most voiceless, those who don’t have the ability to kind of fight for themselves. And so we see food and hunger as related to all of these issues and it’s important to have a conversation. If enough people cared about hungry kids or hunger, we probably wouldn’t have it as a problem in the United States. So we try to look for the issues that people do care about: education, the quality of our schools, healthcare, housing, the environment, and help underscore and illustrate the connections between those issues and hunger.
You’ve been working on this now for a number of years, do you see improvement in the poverty and hunger crisis that existed in the United States now? You mentioned some statistics in your first podcast, but tell us more about your thoughts on how things are moving. Are we getting better at doing this?
Yeah, I think we actually are getting a lot better, particularly on the issue of hunger more so than on the issue of poverty. But, I would say both have actually improved. You know, it’s relative. Some of us remember pictures of Bobby Kennedy visiting the Mississippi Delta and kids running around in bare feet and the dirt and, you know, there’s still a little bit of that, but not a lot. So, families who are poor today, tend to have some of the basic minimums that most of us need to navigate the world. I constantly get asked about like, is that family really poor? Because I saw that they have a cell phone. Well, you can’t do anything without a cell phone in our world today, right? You can’t make a doctor’s appointment, you can’t download your benefits if you’re receiving any type of benefits. So, yeah, so in relative terms, things have improved in and hunger in particular. There are a lot fewer hungry kids than there were even just 10 years ago. I think we’ve cut almost in half the number of and reduced by 50 percent the number of kids in this country who are hungry on a chronic basis. I think what we haven’t done a good job of is for those families and individuals who were, if you think of it as kind of like the bottom quintile economically, even during good economic times during the Clinton administration and during the current job growth that we’re seeing with only three point nine percent unemployment in the US, there’s still a lot of families that don’t have the skills and the training and the education that they need to be part of that. And they’re struggling.
Do you attribute the improvement to the private donors and government putting more money into the effort to address food insecurity and hunger. Are we better at using the existing money or why are things better now?
I think people have coalesced around the idea that that children need to be invested in and supported. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing politically is that both Democrats and Republicans are willing to do what they have to do to support kids. So one of the really interesting experiences I had was going to a governor in Colorado about eight or nine years ago to say, this was Governor Ritter, a democratic governor, a former peace corps volunteer who worked on nutrition issues in Zambia. So he really cared about this and at the time that I went to talk to Governor Ritter, Colorado was 47th lowest in the United States and the percentage of kids who were participating in these programs. And he said, well, what does that mean? And I said, well, here’s all the negative effects it’s having on your kids, but it also means that you’re leaving about $125,000,000 in Washington that could only be used to buy bread from your bakers and milk from your dairy farmers to feed your kids. And, and he looked at his chief of staff, a woman named Roxanne White. And he said, Roxy says that, is that possibly true? And she did a little back of the envelope calculation and said, yes, Governor, I’m afraid it is. And then he looked at me and he said, well, why did we need the guy in the blue blazer from Washington to come tell us that? Right? How could we not know that? And I know to me, it’s an example of how there’s a set of logistical issues that are barriers to kids getting the resources they need.
But there’s also this political issue of them being voiceless, right? So a really good governor doesn’t even know that this program exists because kids don’t vote. They don’t make campaign contributions. They don’t have lobbyists. And unless some of us act as advocates on their behalf, and as there’s been more and more of that over the last 10 years, democratic and Republican governors, I mean, we’ve been assiduously bipartisan at Share our Strength and with the No Kid Hungry Campaign, they’ve all had the same reaction of Governor Ritter, whether they’re Democrat, Republican, older, young, male or female. What do I have to do to get these resources to my kids? And I think if politically, if people have some line of sight into where their resources are going–kids in their community, then I think they’re going to support it. They’re even willing to sacrifice for it. You’ve seen a lot of communities over the last 10 years. Pass referendums, ballot questions that raise their own taxes because they’re not sending their money to Washington, which needs to be done as well, but they’re investing in kids that they can see in the neighborhoods that they can drive through.
You’re talking about the powerful impact Federal funding for these programs can have. Does the fate of such funding vary from administration to administration?
These federal funds have had a lot of bipartisan support over the years. You know, going back to the generals and admirals that we’ve talked about coming after World War II and talking to Congress. The programs like school lunches and school breakfast have so much support and such a track record of making a difference that they’re actually exempt from the automatic budget cuts of sequestration. They have very little impact on the budget in the scheme of things. To these families and kids, of course they’re critical, but in relative terms, they’re small dollars. So they’ve had a lot of bipartisan support and whether it’s been a Republican president and a Republican administration that oversees the programs or Democrat. These programs have continued to work and most of them by the way, are executed by governors. That, that’s where they really play out at the state level. And governors tend to be less ideological, more problem solving than members of Congress.
A major initiative of Share Our Strength is the No Kid Hungry effort. That’s a pretty ambitious goal–to have no child hungry in the United States. Do you think that’s attainable and what will take to accomplish that?
Yeah, I really do. I think we’re going to have kids in this country who are poor and whose families live in poverty and we’re going to have kids who have families who struggle with food insecurity, but that doesn’t mean kids need to be hungry. So we’ve adopted what we think of as just kind of a common sense definition of kids are getting three meals a day. They may have lots of other needs and lots of other problems, but if they’re getting three meals a day of healthy meals, good quality food, nutritious food, we can’t say that they’re hungry. And we’re getting close to the point in this country where through a combination of schools, family supports like the SNAP program of some private efforts like food banks and others, we’re getting pretty close to the point where every kid is getting three meals a day. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re close.
I imagine listeners are feeling as I do now, that you’re an incredibly inspiring person in a great person to be leading this effort and the stakes are incredibly high. Given how many children and others are affected by food insecurity, what can people do in addition to cheering you on from the sidelines?
Well, you know, I’m glad you asked. I love that question because I feel like this issue of hunger, childhood hunger in the United States is one that lends itself to everybody being involved. It’s not like we’re waiting for somebody to invent a new vaccine or to fly around the world and negotiate peace in the Middle East. There’s a way for everybody to be involved. Obviously people can donate and go to the No Kid Hungry a website, but people can volunteer at a variety of anti-hunger organizations in their community. They can be advocates, making sure that their members of Congress and their governors and mayors know these programs exist. They can be a voice for kids in the school system to make sure that they have access to these programs. There’s, there’s literally a role for everybody on this issue.
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Billy Shore and his sister Debbie founded Share Our Strength in 1984 and have led the organization in raising more than $600 million dollars to fight hunger and poverty. They have won the support, in this process, of national leaders in business, government health and education, sports and entertainment. Billy spent the early years of his career in national politics, serving on senatorial and presidential campaign staffs and serving as chief of staff to former US Senator Robert Kerrey. He returned to the national stage in 2014 when congress appointing him to the National Commission on Hunger, a bipartisan group given the task of understanding of the best ways to address hunger in the United States.