A miracle for all seasons

The holiday season always mean special attention to acts of generosity toward those in need, and the sometimes-miraculous outcomes. A recent visit to a San Francisco elementary school showcased a miracle not only for the coming holiday season but for all seasons. It offers an inspiring example of an historic shift in how we care for America’s most vulnerable children and families.

As executive chair of the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, I led a delegation of business leaders last month on a Bay Area visit to bear witness to the paradox of extraordinary wealth and poverty existing nearly side-by-side, and the innovations taking place in serving low-income families. Following a sobering walk through the Tenderloin, where the concentration of deep poverty all but assaults one’s senses, we visited nearby Redding Elementary School.

Ninety-nine percent of the kids attending Redding live at or near the poverty line and qualify for free or reduced price school meals. Approximately 12 percent are from “families in transition,” which is often a euphemism for homeless.

In the past, such social determinants of poverty would also dictate these children being hungry. That is no longer the case.

Redding Elementary not only offers school breakfast and school lunch, but a “second chance breakfast” later in the morning for kids who are not able to arrive early enough for the first one, and also an afterschool supper.

As a result, although these kids may be poor and from families where adults struggle with food insecurity, they are no longer hungry. Instead, they are stronger, healthier, better able to concentrate and do well in school, and have a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty.

It’s as if a miracle drug were discovered that may not cure the underlying disease, but can at least manage and ameliorate the most debilitating symptom.

This is one of the great successes of the national movement to end childhood hunger over the past decade. Public-private partnerships and the job growth that began during the Obama Administration and continues to this day have combined to drive childhood hunger down to its lowest level in decades.

But there is still a long way to go. For example only 29 of San Francisco’s 136 schools offer the more accessible breakfast after the bell program.

The lion’s share of the credit goes to nonprofit partners from around the state such as California Food Policy Advocates, Eat SF, the L.A. Promise Fund, and the school districts and principals. From them we’ve learned important lessons:

Childhood hunger in the U.S. is a solvable problem. We have no shortage of food or of food and nutrition programs. Only political will has been in short supply and that has begun to change.

While our country remains deeply divided and polarized, Americans are willing to come together in a bipartisan way on behalf of kids, who are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. This is especially so at the local level, where taxpayers have a clear line of sight into the return they get on their investment.

By helping kids we are helping their families and ourselves. Healthy school meals, reimbursed by the federal government, give families struggling with housing and health care costs some relief. When kids succeed in school, the ultimate beneficiaries are our economy and our national security.

Millions fewer children are suffering from hunger today than a decade ago. But they are not yet out hunger’s shadow. As hunger decreases, we must turn our attention to the root causes of why kids are hungry in the first place.

This holiday season many of us will volunteer at a soup kitchen or drop some change into a Salvation Army bucket. San Francisco’s success in reducing childhood hunger, even as poverty persists, shows that if we go beyond charity to advocacy that impacts public policy, we can leverage systemic change to reach thousands.

We can show all Americans that notwithstanding political differences, progress is possible. Not only during the holidays but in all seasons.

Bill Shore is the founder and executive chair of the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength.

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