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Why We Can Succeed in Ending Childhood Hunger (Remarks at Autumn Harvest Dinner)

Thank you so much for being with us for such a special evening. I’ve had the privilege of speaking to you from this podium 18 times now, during good times and bad, but never at a moment as pivotal as this.

I’m grateful that Savannah Guthrie is here, and grateful to Kim DiPalo and Danny and everyone on their team for such support. I do want to say a word about Danny Meyer, because there is no one in the country who has made a bigger difference in our success – and we now have an annual budget of $37 million a year – than Danny has as a mentor, leader, champion and friend. The recent New York Times magazine cover story told of how successful he’s been, but it didn’t say what he has done with his success, to what purpose he has put his success, and it is that which I admire most about him because Danny is not only a successful business leader he is a leader in the community and an example of what inspired citizenship can achieve. The reason it wasn’t in the magazine is that it would take an entire book to describe his accomplishments. Fortunately that book is being written today in the smiles of children who have been fed, and on the bodies of children who are strong and healthy because of Danny’s support and leadership.

As I thought about how to describe for you the special blend of idealism and pragmatism that I think is at the heart of Share Our Strength’s effectiveness, I was once again helped by the words of our six year old son Nate. He spends a lot of the summer in Maine at a small cottage we have on the water.

Recently a neighbor came over and said “I had an interesting talk with your son.” This is the moment I begin to hold my breath. Anyhow, this man on the beach comes over and says “I had an interesting talk with your son. I was building a sand castle down by the water’s edge with my son”, he continued” and your son came over to us, hands on hips and said: “Just so you know, I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re always gone by morning.”

Well many of us might say the same about some of the causes and campaigns that we’ve seen come and go, be it the war on poverty, the war on drugs, climate change, even hunger. But I’m here tonight to tell you that this time is different. We’ve got a dream but it’s not built on sand. In fact it’s got a more solid foundation than anything I’ve seen before.

Here’s why it’s different. Hunger is a problem, but it is a problem with a solution. In fact the extent of the problem has never been greater. 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line and 20 million of them live in deep poverty, families of four living on less than $11,500 a year. 44 million are on food stamps and half are kids. Secretary Vilsack told me that one of every two kids in this country will be on food assistance at some point in their lifetime. Today’s generation of children faces hard times worse than anything since the Great Depression.

The solution has to do with two facts:

First, kids are not hungry because we lack food or food programs but because they lack access to those programs. 20 million kids get a free school lunch but only 9 million get breakfast and only 3 million get meals in the summer when the schools are closed. Even though all 20 million are eligible. The reason they lack access is that sometimes they aren’t aware of the program, but most times the state or city where they live hasn’t set the program up.

Second, and this may be Washington D.C.’s best kept billion dollar secret, the food in the programs these kids lack access to is already paid for, it’s costs are 100% federally reimbursed. It buys milk from local dairy farmers, break from local bakeries. But the money doesn’t flow until the kids actually participate.

Here’s the catch: These kids are not only vulnerable but voiceless. They don’t belong to organizations and they don’t have lobbyists. There is no greater testament to their voicelessness than the fact that $1 billion has been allocated for their needs and they are not getting it. These are federal entitlement programs but not the programs that have given entitlements a bad reputation. They are not drivers of the national debt. They represent the bipartisan wisdom of our predecessors, the wisdom that says kids are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, and something as basic as whether or not they eat should not be subject to the prevailing political winds of the moment.

So what we do at Share Our Strength, in its very simplest terms, is work with governors and mayors, nonprofits and businesses, in public-private partnership, to identify the barriers to kids participating in programs like summer meals and school breakfast. And then we knock those barriers down. If it means working with community organizations to set up additional sites, that’s what we do. If it means putting ads on radio stations to make parents aware of where their kids can get food, we do that too.

• Maryland: In August 2010, there has been a 45% increase in participation in summer meal programs over the previous year.

• Arkansas: They have nearly doubled the number of summer meals sites where families can access free summer meals.

• Colorado: There has been a 66% increase in the number of kids who are participating in school breakfast programs in the two years.

• Washington State: There has been a 64% increase in participation in SNAP in Washington State.

And we were recently joined by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia in making this a truly bipartisan effort, and an important regional one, with Maryland Governor O’Malley, to end childhood hunger.

I hope what we are doing sounds good. But I also hope you will agree that good is not good enough. Why? Because Martin Luther King once said “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood, it ebbs.” Despite our success there are still too many children for whom we are too late. The spectacular results we are getting in Arkansas have not found their way to Texas. The progress we’ve seen in Maryland, has not reached Mississippi.

If you are in this room tonight because you believe we can change the world, I hope you will agree that there is no higher likelihood of accomplishing that than by helping us address this problem with the solution I’ve described.

We’ve got a diversity of interests in this room, and many of you have numerous other community and philanthropic commitments. But we’ve come together because we believe that children are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the position in which they find themselves. And it turns out that is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree on as well. And so do teachers, and doctors and Fortune 500 CEO’s and economists, and chefs, of whom some of the best in the world are here tonight. So this problem of hunger has a solution. Private efforts can’t take the place of vital public policy, but engaged and active citizens who put people ahead of politics, can show Washington the way.

We have worked too long and too hard and fought too many good fights to let our legacy be swept away by incoming tides of special interest and cynicism. We’ve worked too long and too hard and fought too many good fights to let our legacy be an America in which record numbers of kids go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, show up at school hungry, and become part of an economy and society weakened by such neglect.

So tonight I ask you to join me in ensuring that for my son Nate at the beach, and your own kids wherever they are, and for American children everywhere, that this time will be different, that this time what we build together will not be washed away like sand castles at high tide, that this time what we build together will be there in the morning, and will be there for the next generation, that this time what we build together will endure and inspire like the great cathedrals that have stood for hundreds of years.

This time what we build together will say to the world that we not only have a vision but a voice and that we have raised our voices together on behalf of those whose voices are not heard, and that rising together our voices finally changed the national conversation, that our voices unashamedly and finally made heard the idealism that brought us here in the first place, that our voices insisted that partisan politics should not only stop at the water’s edge but at the doorstep of any home where young children need a chance and are depending on us to give it to them, that our hopeful voices finally achieved an America in which there is No Kid Hungry.

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