09/04/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Hungry for Happiness: Arby's Quest to End Childhood Hunger

Over 16 million children across America experience hunger every year. This is a shocking statistic, and Arby's Foundation is playing its part to raise awareness and help to end childhood hunger. Over the past several months, the Hungry for Happiness tour bus has made its way from coast to coast to spread the word about its cause.

I spoke to the Arby Foundation's Executive Director, Kate Atwood and Andy D'Agosto, an Arby's franchise owner and Trustee on Arby's vision for ending childhood hunger, and the impact the tour is having on communities across the U.S.

Q: What impact do you hope that the tour has?

Kate Atwood: Our overall goal with the Arby's Foundationis to end childhood hunger in America. Our vision is that all children have access to wholesome food they need to learn, play and grow. For a bit of background, in 2011 we became a national charity partner of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign (NKH). As NKH's largest QSR partner, the Arby's Foundation has raised over $5 million in the past two years to support NKH and other hunger-fighting organizations in the communities that Arby's serves.

In early 2012, we recognized the tremendous need for childhood hunger awareness during the summer months. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), while more than 21 million school children in America get free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year, just over 3 million of those kids get a free summer meal when school is out. This staggering gap means that 85 percent of eligible kids are not receiving a free summer meal and become vulnerable to hunger in the summer months -- a time when children should be focused on being happy, not hungry.

So, with the goal of raising awareness of childhood hunger and increasing access to the existing summer meal sites around the country, the Arby's Foundation, in partnership with Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign and other corporate sponsors, launched the grassroots Hungry for Happiness summer mobile tour.

Andy D'Agosto: We hope the tour educates more and more folks on how big a problem hunger is in America, how it impacts our kids and most importantly, that this is a solvable problem. The money is there. We hope the awareness this tour is bringing to the issue reaches people, businesses and organizations who are able to make a large difference and compels them to take action. We hope the tour continues to bring not only the healthy meals but the escape of a fun, educational and exciting day to young kids who may not have enough of those things during the summer. We hope the tour has successfully helped bridge the hunger gap for many kids during the summer which is the most challenging and vulnerable time for kids who are hungry.

Q: How is the tour making an impact in communities across America?

Kate Atwood: The 14-wheel Arby's Foundation truck is traveling more than 20,000 miles to serve meals to children across 30 major cities and increase enrollment in summer meals sites in their local communities.

In each market, the tour stops at an existing No Kid Hungry partner summer meal site where children can go during the summer months to receive a free meal. While there, we provide a special event and physical attraction to the site for community members. Further, we present a grant for $5,000 to each summer meal site we visit to help support their programming. In addition to the summer meal site, the tour visits public events in each city to help raise awareness of the issue and connect people to resources in their local community. These public events vary in each market, from Arby' s restaurants to popular local parks and recreation sites, to minor league baseball games, to a punk rock concert at the Vans Warped tour. Arby's Foundation staff and volunteers distribute information on local hunger resources and challenge visitors to join the fight to end childhood hunger by asking visitors to sign, "Pledge to help end childhood hunger."

At the mobile tour stops, we are also handing out free Arby's kids meals -- by the end of the tour, we will have provided 6,000 free meals to children across the country. In addition, we raise funds at a stop in each market in order to help a local non-profit food bank/organization.

Andy D'Agosto: The tour has educated more people, businesses and organizations. It has brought significant awareness to an issue that lacked the necessary attention it deserves. The tour helped bring our company together with the Iowa West Foundation and Council Bluffs Community School District. Together we pooled resources and really enhanced a local summer meals program. We'll implement, improve and increase a free and reduced school breakfast program that has and will impact thousands of children locally. The tour has shown many, but I'll speak for myself... the issue of hunger is simple to understand and communicate. When children are hungry they have a hard time focusing on the task at hand... studying or paying attention in class. These two things lead to many issues from disciplinary problems to class disruptions to poor grades which in turn lead to many other things in the future, like not graduating or even worse, dropping out.

Q: What have been some inspiring stories that members of the Arby's team have come across on the tour's journey?

Kate Atwood: At each and every tour stop, we are humbled by the dedication of local volunteers, teachers, food bank organizers, dignitaries and our Arby's franchise partners to help solve the issue of childhood hunger. We've been especially impressed this year by the initiative taken by our franchisees to work with their local food banks, schools and other organizations to build upon what we've done nationally with the Hungry for Happiness mobile tour.

For example, Arby's Foundation trustee and franchisee Andy D'Agosto partnered with the Iowa West Foundation, Hunger Free Heartland and the Council Bluffs Community School District to launch the Hungry for Happiness Council Bluffs program. A collaborative grant in the amount of $180,000 from the national Arby's Foundation and the Iowa West Foundation was provided to the Council Bluffs school district as part of a five-year partnership to increase the number of children and families who participate in the summer meal program. Andy helped organize a refrigerated food truck for the Council Bluffs Community School District that expanded the list of places children could access a free lunch.

Andy D'Agosto: In my opinion the inspiring story is simple... genuine appreciation shown by all the beneficiaries -- the children, the staff of the kids/after school clubs, the summer kids organizations and the volunteers helping put the events on. When you are involved in these events it's easy to get so entrenched in the administration and organization that you kind of forget why you're doing this. When I sit back and think about the tour events we put on this summer it's inspiring to remember the faces of the children. The kids had a blast playing all the games, eating a healthy meal, getting the free back pack of goodies including a choice of an age appropriate book. They were the kings and queens of the castle for the day and it was really fun to see. I am also inspired by all the volunteers that willingly gave their time to help others -- from the employees of our local Arby's to local politicians to the leaders and employees of the kids clubs to the husbands and wives of the volunteers.

Q: What practical steps and ideas can individuals take away from the tour to make a difference in their local community?

Kate Atwood: We want families to know that food resources are available in neighborhoods across America so that children do not need to go hungry during the summer months. Whether through monetary donations or volunteering one's time, individuals can make a positive impact in their communities by supporting local food banks, schools and other organizations that provide meals to children that need them.

In 2012, we also funded an innovative texting program through our charity partner Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. Families can use this texting program to find a free summer meal site in their community. It is the fastest, easiest way to get children connected with these free meals while school is out for the summer.

Andy D'Agosto: Attendees learned there is a national number to text to find out the closest summer meal site someone could go to for a meal. They learned the local food banks are a great place to go to gain information of what is happening locally. At these food banks, they would be able to volunteer time or figure out where to go to volunteer.

Q: How did you become involved with the Arby's Foundation as a franchise owner?

Andy D'Agosto: Panda, Inc., the franchise partner/group that owns more than 15 Arby's, became involved many years ago when it was the Arby's Charity Tour. Recently, three years ago, the foundation joined forces with Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. It was the Arby's Foundation who educated us franchisees on how widespread of a problem hunger is in America. From there we, Panda, Inc., looked into and realized how prevalent hunger is in our local area. After learning all this, it was easy to get involved.