This month, the No Kid Hungry campaign challenged America's leaders to connect 1 million more low-income children in this nation to school breakfast over the next two years. To launch the campaign, many of us from Share Our Strength spent time with governors and school leaders from across the nation to talk about what was working in their communities. The result was enlightening.
One of these meetings, a lunch with Billings school Superintendent Terry Bouck, gave a glimpse of the progress citizens can achieve close to home, in contrast to the polarization and paralysis that has come to characterize their political leaders in Washington. It signals a potential political sea change, and reason to be hopeful.
After starting our day with an inviting, home-cooked "Mountain Man" breakfast in a third grade classroom in Darby, we flew to Billings where Superintendent Bouck shared his confidence about No Kid Hungry in the context of stronger-than-ever community support for area schools. His evidence: Last year, voters approved a new construction levy to raise a record $122 million to renovate elementary schools, build new middle schools, and cover deferred maintenance on others. They also passed general levies to hire 20 more teachers and improve technology.
Tax increases in Montana are a tough sell. Five similar levies put before voters in 2012 were all defeated. The last time a construction levy passed for Billings schools was nearly 30 years ago for $28 million. Bouck credited the 2013 victory to a hard-fought campaign that took nothing for granted. The campaign emphasized the tremendous return on investment in the form of a better school system for a family whose share of the increase would be $4.30 a month if they had a home assessed at $100,000. The local Chamber of Commerce was a staunch supporter.
How investing in children pays off became even clearer when Friday's New York Times reported on a study begun 42 years ago and just published in the journal Science. It showed that children in the Carolina Abecedarian Project who received full-time day care, meals and stimulating activities not only had better cognitive abilities as predicted, but also significantly better health outcomes even though, as economist James Heckman explained, "Nobody thought about that at the time... It also shows us that... poverty is not just a hopeless condition."
Arkansas provides a contemporary look at how hard work can pay off in connecting more low-income kids to the food they need. At one point, Arkansas was number one in the country for food insecurity. Now, the state has a new distinction. According to preliminary USDA data, Arkansas had the largest increase in summer meals served of any state in the country for 2013. In just one summer, Arkansas children were served nearly 4 million meals, an increase of 1.6 million meals over the previous summer.
Think about what we could achieve as a nation by combining the courage of Montana voters with the wisdom behind North Carolina's research and the dogged persistence that led to the record-setting meal increases achieved in Arkansas. Our most valuable asset at Share Our Strength may turn out to be the unique vantage point that enables us to see beyond the Beltway to how parents, teachers and the voters closest to children are willing to sacrifice on behalf of their future. It's contrary to conventional political wisdom but not to common sense. After all, the delicious home-cooked breakfast in Darby was prepared by food service director Thong Robbins whose own children attend the school, motivating her special care with the preparation of every meal. When former House Speaker Tip O'Neil famously said "All politics is local" he wasn't referring to Democrats or Republicans so much as describing a mom like Thong charged with feeding children breakfast, a superintendent like Terry Bouck charged with educating them, and a community like Billings, marshaling the will to make investments that won't pay off until the long-term.
Such communities are helping to shift our national political culture from short-changing children to investing in them. And that could change everything.
About Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign
No child should grow up hungry in America, but one in five children struggles with hunger. Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign is ending childhood hunger in America by connecting kids in need with nutritious food and teaching families how to cook healthy, affordable meals. You can help surround kids with healthy food where they live, learn and play.