A New Tool to Address Hunger in High-Poverty Communities

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has helped bring renewed public attention to poverty, opportunity, and the safety net.  Debates over potential new initiatives in these areas should take account of the accomplishments of existing programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and the school breakfast and lunch programs.  And, the school meals programs have an important new tool — community eligibility — that can make them even more effective in reducing hunger in high-poverty communities.  But eligible schools must act by June 30 to take advantage of this opportunity.

I’ve worked on the school meals programs for over 35 years, starting when I was in charge of the federal food assistance programs in the Agriculture Department during the Carter Administration.  They have long served a vital role and have continued to improve over the years with healthier meals and greater efficiency.

Under community eligibility, schools in which at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free school meals automatically, without submitting an application, can serve free meals to all students.  Students are approved without an application if they have been identified by another program (such as SNAP) as being low-income, or if they are at risk of hunger (for example, because they are homeless).

The option has been phasing in since 2011, and now, for the first time, will become available nationwide for the 2014-2015 school year.  The lists of eligible schools in all states are available here.  But schools have only until June 30 to opt in, so school districts need to move quickly to embrace this opportunity.

Community eligibility has led to a striking increase in the number of children in high-poverty areas eating school breakfast and lunch.  In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have used the option for two years, lunch participation rose by 13 percent and breakfast participation rose by 25 percent, with 29,000 more low-income children eating breakfast daily.

This model of connecting low-income children to assistance is effective for several reasons:

  • It’s targeted.  School meals have always been available free of charge to low-income children, but community eligibility expands the school meals programs’ reach in communities with high concentrations of poverty.  Over 80 percent of the students participating in community eligibility schools in its first two years had been approved for free or reduced-price meals the prior year.
  • It’s administratively simple.  Community eligibility not only connects more low-income children to nutritious food, but also cuts red tape.  Families don’t have to complete applications or provide information on their income, and schools don’t have to process those applications or have a cashier figure out whether to provide a free or reduced-price meal every time a child goes through the lunch line.  A related benefit is that students can eat in the cafeteria without worrying about any stigma from receiving a free meal. Moreover, schools that have adopted community eligibility report administrative savings from streamlining their meals programs.  Those savings, combined with the drop in per-meal costs when more children eat, help to cover the costs of providing meals to more students.
  • It promotes opportunity.  Eating breakfast and lunch helps children start the school day ready to learn and remain focused throughout the day.  Schools that have taken steps to increase school breakfast participation, for example, report that discipline referrals and behavior problems went down and student attentiveness and attendance went up.

The national debate on poverty will continue, but let’s take this practical next step right now:  encourage the schools and districts in your state that are eligible for community eligibility to take the option.

Connecting low-income children to good nutrition to help them grow, learn, and thrive is something we all ought to be able to agree on.



A Just State, Not a Welfare State

This past November, Pope Francis wrote, “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality” (Joy in the Gospel, par. 204) In Detroit, at the end of February 2014, I saw this challenge embodied in people striving to create a more inclusive economy.

At Mercy Education Project for women and girls, Sharon talked to me about her secret: she had never told her husband or three daughters that she never graduated from high school. She fought through mental illness and worked hard to keep her family together, but she could not compete in an economy without a GED.

Sharon had a nightshift job, but could not advance unless she had a graduation certificate. It was her reading that was tripping her up. She had a learning disability and never learned how to compensate for it. As a result, she had come to dread school and the failure she associated with it.

Because of the needs of her family, Sharon came to Mercy Education and discovered that she was very capable. She entered Mercy’s welcoming community, improved her reading and math skills, and earned her GED.

The next day Sharon went to her employer with her diploma in hand and he said, “Today is your lucky day!” Just that morning, a worker had left so there was an opening on the day shift. Sharon moved into that new position with increased pay. All of her hard work was beneficial for herself, her family and her employer.

On the other side of Detroit I met Kristine, whose flashing eyes and ready smile are a magnetic attraction for anyone who walks within ten feet of her. She wrestled with dyslexia all of her life.  Although her mom was a champion for her needs, it wasn’t until she was an adult and went to the Dominican Literacy Center that she received the individualized attention that she needed. At the Center, she learned how to compensate for her disability.

With her new skills and engaging personality Kristine became a part-time mentor at the Center. This eventually led to a full-time position. She is now truly at the heart of the mentoring program, encouraging and supporting other adults as they strive to gain essential skills.

Marcella, for example, came for tutoring and said she didn’t talk to anyone until Kristine talked with her. Then she began to share her story and her struggles with reading and math. The tutoring made all of the difference for Marcella as she gained confidence in her skills. She became a mentor to adults who were new to the Center. Marcella is now proficient with computers, has enrolled in a QuickBooks programing project, and continues to serve as an individual mentor. She delights that she is now “giving back” to others.

Another woman at the Dominican Center, Elizabeth, also said that Kristine helped her as she struggled to stay off drugs and learn to read. Kristine encouraged her to create a flyer for a cleaning business that Elizabeth wanted to start. Because of that flyer, Elizabeth is now employed and celebrating her steps into the labor force. Elizabeth and her employer take pride in Elizabeth’s personal growth and the contribution she is making to the business with her improved reading and math skills.

Finally, Antonio told me that Kristine was the person who encouraged him to first come to the Center. He had always been a good kid in school, but was extremely shy and afraid to speak up when he didn’t understand what was going on, and he could not read. He got passed along from grade to grade but had severe dyslexia. Although he received his high school diploma he had been afraid to tell anyone about his struggles. Because of Dominican, Antonio now spoke to me with confidence about how much he had learned and where he was headed.

The Mercy Education Program and Dominican Center—both started and sponsored by Catholic Sisters—are geared to addressing income disparities in our nation. Through individual tutoring and small classes they are making a difference as adults wrestle with lifelong limitations. But what is often missed is that they both use some government funding to pay for their programs. They combine government money with donations, grants and volunteers—a public-private partnership that is making change happen. But it is only one step in many that are necessary to change the face of poverty in our society.

We need more centers, not fewer. We need more employment, not less. We need better wages so that work does pay. We need to restructure some of our educational programs so that students do not get lost or discouraged. All of the people I met in Detroit were invested in making a difference in their city. They were not seeking a “welfare state” – they were looking for a “just state,” and they are well on their way to making something new in their city.

Pope Francis is right. We are all needed to further the quest for the common good. That is what is happening in parts of Detroit. May it be realized in our entire nation.



First Person

My Poverty, My Trauma

I have lived in Philadelphia, in poverty, for most of my life. I remember the smell of mold and mildew. I would watch as my most valuable possessions were destroyed by them. The smell of decay was all around me. I remember being cold and being in houses with no heat or hot water. My stepfather would use gray duct tape to wrap around the cords of the heaters when they burned out, so we could keep using it. Yes, it was a fire hazard, but who cared – the heater was keeping us warm. On occasion you would hear a sizzle and a pop from the heater.  Despite our efforts we were still cold.

My scars run long and deep – they will always be there. The long lasting effects of trauma stick with you.

We never had a working kitchen. My mom would cook food at her parents’ house and then we would take the food back to wherever we were staying at that moment. Most of the places we lived in had no running water and were very unsanitary. We would also go to my grandparents’ house to take baths and we got used to defecating in shoe boxes, putting it in plastic bags, getting on the bus and just throwing it out the window into a lot or something. People who are raised like this simply pass it on down the line. And you grow up thinking that it is ok to live like this.

As for food, we didn’t starve.  But we were hungry.  We ate whatever we could afford.  This is where the past affects the present. Today I’m somewhat of a food hoarder – I’m afraid of not having enough food for my family and me. I know what it feels like to be hungry but not have the food that you need or want. I have to constantly remind myself that I no longer live that way. But it’s the only way I’ve ever known. I don’t take showers, only baths, because I’m not used to it. If I do get cold or hungry I have learned how to deal with it. It’s like when you are being raped and you go out of your body to survive. That’s what it’s like when you are born into hunger and into a dirty, unhealthy environment.  This kind of living goes back in time, too.  If your parental figure is used to living that way, it’s likely because their childhood was the same way. You are stripped of your dignity. You are ashamed. Your soul feels like a bottomless pit. You feel less than human. The hell that I know came from the environment that I was born into. Now I am in my thirties, and I’m still haunted by the trauma and food insecurity.

My scars run long and deep – they will always be there. The long lasting effects of trauma stick with you. But I refuse to let my past dictate my future. My memories keep me humble. I’m shaped not by the commonly accepted “fact” that since I grew up in poverty I have to live in poverty now. Instead, I’m shaped by the idea that while you can’t change the past, you can change the future.

When I go into a market and see and smell food I feel bliss. It’s like I just won the lottery. To know that I can buy a steak if I want to or some seafood is a very priceless feeling. To be able to run hot and cold water is a blessing.

Today I am far from my childhood of mold, cold, and hunger. But even though I’ve healed so much and don’t have to live that way anymore, the effects of early poverty and trauma are still a part of my being. They shape me into the woman I am today. A woman who is motivated, and works hard to make sure that her daughter will have more opportunities than she had growing up. I take what I saw and experienced as a child, and use that to drive me to be a better person for myself, for my family, and for others who live through the trauma of poverty.



First Person

It’s Time to #VOTEFOOD

I’m a chef, a food activist, an avid eater, and a healthy-cooking parent, though most people know me from my role as head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. All of the above warrant my inclusion in what is known as the Food Movement.

So you may be surprised to learn that lately I’ve been asking myself this question:

Is there actually a Food Movement?

25 years ago, as a fledgling chef, I didn’t ask these sorts of questions. I started purchasing fresh food for my restaurant from farmer’s markets because it tasted better. Back then I could actually back my truck up into the market at Union Square and load up on root vegetables and fresh herbs from Guy Jones and the other early farmers who sold vegetables there.  I was buying local and organic — not because I was concerned about the environment or farm workers — but because it simply tasted better and my goal at the time was to be the best chef I could be. It was higher quality food, period.

Around the same time, I was invited to cook at a Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation Fundraiser. I was happy to support SOS’s mission to combat hunger, but frankly, I agreed because it meant I was invited to cook alongside the country’s most elite chefs that night, and I was flattered to be included.

The truth is that the great work of charities is being undermined by really bad policy, and until we face that truth, we’re deluding ourselves.

What I learned that evening really made me start to think about hunger in this country.  At the same time, issues pertaining to our food supply and our fisheries became more important to me and I educated myself about them too, with the dawning understanding that my success as a chef rested on the viability of the ingredients at my disposal.

Around this time I started to feel uneasy about the great schism between the variety and quality of what I could offer my guests at restaurants, and the food available to millions of other Americans for whom a meal at Craft or Colicchio & Sons was not an option.  As a chef, it’s my job to feed people, and given my own humble roots, it didn’t feel right to only feed the luckiest few. That was the impulse behind ‘wichcraft – I wanted to offer great, high quality food at a more democratic price point. But that wasn’t enough to quiet my growing discomfort. A $10 artisanal sandwich wasn’t the answer to unequal food access.

Over the years I continued to cook for any group that was tackling hunger. I saw my role as a fundraiser, plain and simple.  When asked, I also lent my voice to groups who were pushing for more sustainable ways of farming the land, and to environmental groups bent on protecting our food and fisheries.

Then, about six years ago, my wife Lori began working on a movie that examined our nation’s hunger crisis.  She was determined to ask some hard questions about how the world’s wealthiest nation could have a massive hunger crisis – a crisis virtually unknown in other wealthy, developed nations.

Making A Place at the Table changed my thinking radically, because I learned a remarkable truth: hunger in the U.S. is solvable. We actually can end it, if we resolve to look honestly and critically at the policies that contribute to the issue.  Other nations have done that, and they are not faced with the same hunger crisis. We, on the other hand, comfort ourselves with charitable work that barely makes a dent in the problem. I was so used to raising money, I thought the answer was food banking. Food banks do really excellent, needed work, but they’re not getting us any closer to ending hunger.

To put it in perspective: The most successful fundraising gala I’ve ever attended raised $2 million dollars to support the food banks of New York City. Earlier this year, Congress voted to slash $8.8 BILLION dollars from SNAP. To make up for $8.8 billion dollars in cuts to food for hungry people, we would need to replicate the success of that fundraiser every single night.  For the next 12 years.

The truth is that the great work of charities is being undermined by really bad policy, and until we face that truth, we’re deluding ourselves. If bad policies — like cruel cuts to food stamps or a minimum wage so low that working people can’t afford food — are creating the problem, then it will take good policies to fix them.  And where do policies get written, decided and voted on? Washington, DC.

Marion Nestle once described a meeting she had on Capitol Hill where she used the term “The Food Movement.” The Congressman chuckled and said, “The food movement? What food movement?” As he saw it there was no food movement because Congress wasn’t hearing from them and they weren’t voting people in and out of office on the basis of these values.

Plain and simple, his point was: you might think you’re a movement, but if you’re not getting anyone elected, then your issues don’t matter here. Sorry.

So far, the food movement has been no match for the food industry, especially on Election Day. And, that’s why so many of our food policies benefit industrial agriculture and giant food processors at the expense of struggling families.

Unfortunately, the Americans most affected by policies that lead to hunger haven’t been able to move the needle on influencing our leaders for obvious reasons – when you’re struggling just to get enough food together for your kids each day, you’re unlikely to be able to focus on organizing a political movement.

For years now, food advocates and hunger advocates have been in silos – so focused on making modest gains that many times we are faced with bargaining between good food policy and reducing hunger.

The key to our success is impossible to ignore – we have to get out of our silos and work together as a political movement.  When that starts to happen, we won’t be in the kind of situation we were in during this last Farm Bill debate, which split people who care about hunger from people who care about healthy diets and organic farmers. We all share the same food values, but we were too divided to deliver the food system Americans overwhelmingly want.

That’s why I worked with food leaders from across the country to help create Food Policy Action.  Finally, we are uniting food leaders from across the country, and are holding legislators accountable. We can see whether or not they share our values. Because that’s what this is about. This is about creating a system that works for everyone. It’s about more than just food: it’s about justice.
Every year, Food Policy Action issues a scorecard that tracks how legislators are voting on the issues we all care about, issues like hunger, nutrition, food access, food and farm workers, food safety, local food and farming, animal welfare, and reforming farm subsidies.

This kind of accountability is crucial to our ability – as a movement – to promote the policies that will change the way we eat and how our food is grown.  Right now, we have a Gun Rights Movement that votes expressly on Second Amendment Rights.  We have a Pro-Life movement that votes entirely based on Reproductive Rights. It’s time we have a Food Movement that votes on a good fair food system for all.

Now is the time for us to band together with people working on all food issues to make food matter in elections. We can work together to introduce tax incentives that promote the right kind of behavior from industry. We can raise Americans’ awareness of how their leaders are voting on issues that directly impact the quality and availability of their food. We can call out our leaders who show disdain for American eaters by voting for bad food policies and force them to defend those votes in primaries, talk to SNAP recipients, and stare down the 17 million kids who routinely go hungry through no fault of their own.  We can start to vote for good food not with our dollars, but with our votes.

As soon as one legislator loses their job over the way they vote on food issues, it will send a clear message to Congress: We are organized. We’re strong.  Yes, we have a food movement, and it’s coming for you.

Join me, #VOTEFOOD.


First Person

Time for Collective Action (and Other Lessons from Duck Run)

Growing up, I lived out in the country in southern Ohio on a road called Duck Run. It was sort of a secluded upbringing.  There was no city, no town—not even a small town nearby.

The first house I remember living in was a big farmhouse.  It probably wasn’t really all that big but things always look larger when you’re a kid.  When I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, I woke up in the middle of the night, my sister was carrying me out of the house.  It was on fire.

My Dad was working at the steel mill on the midnight shift.  The rest of us—there were nine of us kids, I had four brothers and four sisters—we stood on the other side of the road with Mom and watched our house burn to the ground.  When Dad got home there was nothing.  We weren’t able to get our clothes out, or anything else.  And there was no insurance.

So what to do?

We had a chicken house up on the side of the hill.  My older brothers and my Dad took cardboard and used it as plaster board.  And so we lived there in the chicken house for a while—that’s where I had whooping cough.  Down over the side of the hill we had what we called a smokehouse—which was basically a cellar with a little structure on top of it.  We used that as our kitchen.  Eventually, my Dad and older brothers took our barn and made a house out of it, and that’s where I grew up.

It was definitely tough times.  My Dad probably had a 5th grade education, my Mom—I’m not sure how far she went in school.  I had a tenth sibling who didn’t survive childhood.

Dad drank a lot, and wasn’t always kind.  But my mother was just the opposite—she was like the sponge that absorbed all of the incoming fire, so to speak.  She was the protector.  And I always felt secure, sure that my Mom and Dad would be there for us.

I know there were times my parents went without what they desperately needed in order to make it possible for us kids to have what we needed.  We all cared for each other.  I remember times trying not to eat too much food.  We ate a lot of mush—oatmeal, basically.  But we always had pigs, and chickens, and cows.  We had a lot of vegetables—my Mom canned a lot. We grew a lot of potatoes and tomatoes and beans.  We always had horses, I remember plowing behind a team of horses with what we called a turning plow that would dig deep into the earth.

Things got a little better as some of my older siblings left the house and got jobs.  Three of my brothers became construction workers—cement finishers.  We got indoor plumbing in our barn house when I was in high school.

I had no thought whatsoever of going to college—never knew anyone who went to college.  But I enjoyed school.  I stuttered badly at times during that period, but I had teachers who saw potential in me.  Mabel Keller taught me during 1st through 4th grades in a one-room school. I remember standing outside with her one day and she said to me, “Teddy, I wish you were my little boy.”  I remember the pride I felt.  When I was a senior in high school, another teacher, Frankie Edwards, took me to visit a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, Asbury College.  On the way home she told me if I wanted to go to college I could, there were people who would help me afford it.

So I went on to further my education and got two Masters and a PhD.  Other than myself, only one of my siblings finished high school.  And some of them were truly much more capable than I—and I mean that.  The only difference between my brothers finishing concrete—and it’s an honorable thing to do—and my ability to become a psychologist and a Congressman and a Governor, was opportunity and education.  Because I came a long later in the birth order it was possible for me to have opportunities they just didn’t have.

My family was strongly Democratic, primarily because of what my folks experienced during the Depression.  So I grew up hearing about FDR and the importance of social security and other programs that helped people in need.  We were also a strong labor family—my Dad worked at the steel mill, my brothers were members of the Cement Mason’s Union, and I belonged to the Laborers’ Union during my graduate school days when I worked in construction.  This, and my family’s experience when I was growing up, as well as the teachings of my faith—have always caused me to feel a responsibility to look out for those who have fewer opportunities in life.  And I’ve always tried to stay close to the people I want to represent—primarily because of my own need to stay in touch with where I came from.  I’ve always felt that if you’re not careful when you’re in public life you can start thinking of yourself as being other than the people whom you represent.  I’ve always tried to consciously make sure that that didn’t happen to me—I’ve seen it happen to too many other people.

So when I was in Congress and in the Governor’s office I never accepted any subsidized healthcare coverage, because there were a lot of people I represented who had no access to health care.  In terms of combatting poverty, I’m very proud of the work I did in Congress on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health insurance for millions of children nationwide who can’t afford private health insurance.  A small group of us in the House regularly met over a long period of time to formulate what became the CHIP legislation.

But I look back over my tenure as Governor, and I talked a lot more about the middle class than I did about people in poverty, or near poverty. And, yes, it was a difficult time during the Great Recession— just trying to keep things together, keep things from totally falling apart.  But we don’t hear as much concern expressed about low-income people as we did 20 or 30 years ago, and I believe that we’re regressing as a nation in that regard.

I think there is a tendency on the part of people who are not struggling to survive every day to assume that the safety net programs are there and helping the people who need help.  But then you talk to people who operate food banks, for example, you find out that there are a lot of hungry people and the food banks can’t meet the need.  And more and more, you find people who used to donate to the food banks are now turning to them every month in need.

It’s un-American, frankly, that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty.

The excuse we hear too often from political leaders who don’t talk about poverty is that budgets are too tight and you can only do so much.  But there is a reason budgets are tight—we have cut taxes!  If we had a progressive tax system that was anywhere near the levels it was before Ronald Reagan became President, we would have the resources we need.

This is one area where I think we can do a much better job—talking about the link between tax policy, decreasing revenues, and cuts in programs that people need to have a fair shot at the American Dream.

We also have to do a better job talking about work and shared prosperity.  It’s un-American, frankly, that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty.  And I think something that is sometimes missing from progressive consciousness—and something that certainly benefited my family—is an awareness of the importance of organized labor.  We became as egalitarian as we did as a nation because working people gained power and influence by banding together and bargaining for better wages and benefits and safety conditions.  And as economic disparities have increased over these last few decades, the influence of organized labor has decreased.

So whether it’s the same paradigm or not, we’ve got to find some way for people to act collectively in their self-interest.  And that’s a challenge that I think is facing organized labor but also all of us who care about giving everyone a fair shot and a fair chance.

We simply can’t get where we need to go as a nation through individual efforts.  It’s got to be through collective action.