#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.

Youth Group Defeats Hunger for 400 Families

We all say that we want no child to go to bed hungry. But what if you believed it could be true?

Consider this: the youth group of Henryetta Church of the Nazarene in Henryetta, Oklahoma believes that they can change the status quo of hunger in their town.

At the beginning of this school year, Henryetta’s youth pastor, Jeff Williamson, started a conversation with his students about the fact that every day 1 in 5 kids is at risk of going to bed hungry in the United States. He told his students: “How can this be here in America? There’s a need in our own city. We need to do something about it.”

His students agreed.

On October 11-12, Pastor Jeff and the students selected Feed the Children as their partner and planned a “fast” to raise money for hungry kids in their town.

Students asked church members, teachers and friends to sponsor them for every hour that they thought the student could go without food. Each student had to find 20 sponsors to donate $10 each. When the kids doubted they could find 20 sponsors, Pastor Jeff told them to count how many Facebook friends they had. That made the project seem easier.

Then they considered how the students would spend the hours of their fast. Pastor Jeff encouraged the group to gather at a local park and sleep outside for the night, like the homeless often have to. They agreed to sleep out, and not in tents or on air mattresses either. They slept in cardboard boxes. Even though it was colder than usual that night in the park, 25 students and 7 adults outlasted the night.

We asked Pastor Jeff how he got his students to sleep outside in the cold for a night. He said:  “I challenged them to experience something new. I told them about all the people I’ve met in our town who camp out in the woods on a regular basis.”

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Over and over, the students said the same thing about the experience: “I never knew how it felt to be homeless.”

In the end, their efforts raised over $10,000, which they have designated to bring one Feed the Children truck, filled with boxes of food and everyday essentials, to their community. The truck will arrive with a week’s supply of food, along with personal hygiene and household items, for 400 families in need. It is scheduled to arrive before the Thanksgiving holiday.

They’ve also approached several major grocery stores in their community asking them to donate turkeys. They hope to enhance the Feed the Children boxes with a free turkey and loaf of bread.

On October 20, members of the church visited with Feed the Children staff in Oklahoma City and presented the check for the funds they raised to Feed the Children President and CEO, Kevin Hagan.

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Pastor Jeff said, “We want the community to know that we see them. They don’t have to be hungry over the holidays. God never intended the church to sit still while people are hungry in this world.”

When asked how families will be chosen to receive the food boxes, Pastor Jeff said they’re already working with school administrators in their town to select those who will receive the help.

We’re so proud of their efforts and what this group is doing to defeat hunger where they live!

Would you like to organize a similar project in your community? Contact us– we’d be glad to support you!