No Cookie Left Behind, our own Great American Bake Sale, I was invited to attend the annual conference of Share Our Strength, a far-reaching non-profit dedicated to systematically ending childhood hunger in the United States by 2015. In two days, I heard from philanthropic visionaries, Belgian beer ambassadors, urban garden champions, huge-hearted corporate execs, Food Network personalities, like-minded Angelenos, chefs young and old. I picked collard greens in rural Maryland, was brought to tears on more than one occasion, put a sweet smiling face to a bake-sale name I'd been emailing with all year, ate and drank, then ate and drank some more, and rocked out to the awesome Urban Nation Hip-Hop Choir. Wow, how to break it down...
Let's do some bullet points, shall we?
- Before the conference, I knew SOS was on the childhood hunger front, but only had nebulous details. People, this organization is amazing, and combats childhood hunger on quite literally every front.
- Lobbying: When it comes to government, hungry kids are a voiceless, invisible group. Billy Shore, who founded SOS twenty-five years ago with his sister Debbie, and who's a serious motivational guru, writer of 3 books, and crazy intellectual -- quoting Ulysses and Elie Wiesel in one breath -- is a lobbyist for hungry kids. He educates state governments on federal funds they can be getting, drives them to action on programs to fight childhood hunger.
- Educational Programming: The Operation Frontline program educates people with low income on how to prepare healthful meals on a limited budget -- everything from budgeting and shopping, to cooking and nutrition -- then send students home with a bag of groceries and a battery of recipes so they can recreate the meals for their families. This is the 'teach him how to fish' branch of SOS. I love it. (And we have it right here in LA.)
- They work with existing local organizations, getting them what they need to move forward. A simple example: Hungry kids depend on school breakfast and lunch. But sometimes, kids that take the bus to school don't get there in time for breakfast. SOS suggests serving breakfast in the early part of class. A school counters back that they don't have the janitorial staff required for this. That's where SOS comes in. They bridge all the little tiny gaps that without SOS would be insurmountable hurdles.
- They work with schools, non-profits, faith-based programs, food banks, urban gardens, basically anyone who has something to offer -- they will bring them together.
- Access: The nation has a series of 'food deserts' -- areas so impoverished that supermarkets and farmers markets do not go there, as there's no money in it for them. SOS works with local programs that bring fresh produce into corner stores and bodegas, and supports urban gardens so these communities can grow their own food.
- Funds: Of course they raise tons of money. They have awesome programs like the bake sale, Taste of the Nation, Great American Dine Out, and more, and they have partnerships with major players like Food Network, Cisco, Corner Bakery, Stella Artois, Domino Sugar... (and many MANY more).
All in all, it was a pretty amazing weekend, with inspiration, information, and fun at every corner. It's not every weekend that a Belgian beer tasting (complete with chocolatey waffel, mini-beer float (honey ice cream and Hoegaarden, for the keeping score at home), and mmmm, Leffe) is followed by a Top-Chef-esque dining challenge where I get to taste it all, capped off with the VP of PR for the Food Network buying me a drink at Eric Ripert's bistro. I firmly believe, despite mathematical intuition telling me otherwise, that a weekend of eating and drinking -- when coupled with talking, learning, thinking, and serving, of course -- can end childhood hunger.