#Expanding the Table– U.S. Faith-Based Community Uniting to Defeat Summer Hunger

I live in Oklahoma, the state that ranks 51st on the list of kids that are on free and reduced lunch during the year that don’t eat during the summer.

This fact is unacceptable.

How could Feed the Children, one of the nation’s largest hunger organizations be headquartered in Oklahoma and not address the hunger needs in our own backyard?

I knew that during my tenure at Feed the Children, change would need to happen.

So, beginning with a conversation and challenge from Audrey Rowe, Administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) in 2013, Feed the Children made a plan.

We knew our lack of experience would limit us if we didn’t have support of partners. We’d need guides to contribute their wisdom to our efforts. And last year, USDA’s FNS along with No Kid Hungry gave us lots of great advice. With their encouragement, we began.

Last summer in Oklahoma City, Feed the Children rolled out our pilot Summer Food and Education Program in partnership with FNS, the Oklahoma Department of Education, PepsiCo Food for Good, local schools and churches to form the first coalition on childhood hunger in Oklahoma.

For 9 weeks, we served over 8,654 meals on site through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and provided an additional 186,000 take-home meals to children and their families.

IMG_1715We learned that organizing community leaders around summer meal programs actually is not as daunting as we first thought. Church and other faith based groups with established programs for kids in the summer serve as built in partners and host sites.

And this is the good news I want to share: in one summer, Feed the Children’s efforts helped to increase the number of kids fed in the state of Oklahoma by 30%.

We still rank 51st but we know, in time, this fact about Oklahoma will change.

In light of our experiences, on Tuesday, February 3, FNS invited us to share our story at The White House.

Feed the Children, in partnership with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the USDA FNS, convened a forum called “Summer Meals 2015: Expanding the Table.”

I sat among 40 leading national and local faith-based and non-profit organizations–all showing our support for the 2015 Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).

As the session began, we heard from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who shared of his passion for no child going to bed hungry in the US. He reminded us that hungry kids in the US are hungry of no fault of their own. We all need to ban together to feed kids when school is out of session.

Next, I moderated a panel with community partners Dr. Kathy Krey, Director of Research for the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University, and Dr. Judy Goforth Parker, Secretary of Health for the Chickasaw Nation, sharing stories of lessons learned from summer meals. For example, Dr. Krey spoke of the value of “everybody doing something.”

“Even if all you can do is assist at summer meal sites by opening up milk cartons for kids–do it,” she said. “We must all do our part.”

The forum resulted in the large community of leading nonprofit and faith-based organizations pledging their individual and organizational support and commitment to address summer hunger, the results of which will greatly impact children throughout America.

IMG_9146It was an imperative that I sign the pledge and become a summer meal champion.

Following the meeting, Feed the Children organized a Twitter Town Hall, using #ExpandingTheTable as the hashtag, to disseminate the message of support with those organizations at the forum and encourage others to join in the call to action. The conversation among leading advocates for hunger in the US included: FNS, No Kid Hungry, the Salvation Army, and Church World Service, and was incredibly informative.

The forum marks the first time the national faith-based community has collectively partnered with FNS in support of SFSP, which is typically organized on a grassroots level to provide free meals and snacks to low-income children during the summer months.

It was a good day at Feed the Children as we expanded our table to welcome even more partners.

I’m looking forward to what the future holds for Feed the Children as we feed even more children this summer in Oklahoma and beyond.