Is Food Enough?


Charity celebrity-chef events have become as popular as 10-K runs, with squadrons of chefs turned out neatly in white jackets, clouds of mesquite smoke, Gucci-clad event-goers attempting to balance paper plates of foie gras or Sonoma lamb on cool glasses of Alexander Valley Chardonnay.

But in the earliest days of the hunger-relief organization Share Our Strength, its Taste of the Nation events were among the few on the scene. Wolfgang Puck's American Wine & Food Festival in Los Angeles for Meals on Wheels was first in 1983, and its success inspired chefs around the country to get involved in similar events in their own towns.

Share Our Strength, founded in 1984, gave chefs an umbrella organization in which to work and quickly spread across the U.S., with the goal of solving the country's hunger problem using money raised by chefs eager to do more with their talents than feed the elite. Founder Bill Shore was careful to give the chefs in each city local control. "The chefs see this as their event," Shore says.

The organization has come a long way since Shore, a political staffer for Sens. Gary Hart and Robert Kerry, was moved by news of starvation in Ethiopia to try to end hunger in this country. Share Our Strength, with nearly 100 events annually throughout the U.S., is the largest provider of funds for emergency food assistance in the country, and it supports 300 community-based organizations each year.

During preparations for this year's Taste of the Nation event to be held Sunday at the Los Angeles Music Center (see Datebook, H7), Shore took time to talk about the evolving nature of hunger in America and his own anti-hunger organization.

Q: In the early days of your organization, Share Our Strength's money went to food banks. Now some of your money might go to a birth clinic in a children's hospital or fixing the roof of a cafeteria so a school can start a breakfast program. What's behind the change in your approach?

A: More than half of our money still goes to emergency food assistance, but we've also looked for places where our money would have leverage beyond the face value of the dollar.

We've gotten a lot more knowledgeable and sophisticated about how to make an impact on hunger. When we started the organization, we thought we would raise money, give it to food banks and that would be the end of hunger. Of course, you cannot solve hunger in the abstract.

If you do this work for not very long, you realize that hunger's the symptom of a deeper problem: poverty. A lot of anti-hunger activists are now saying that food banking is not the answer. That's not where everybody was 15 years ago so, and that's a pretty important kind of maturity on the part of all of us.

Q. What's wrong with food banks?

A. Supporting food banks is the right thing to do, the compassionate and humanitarian thing to do, and we're very committed to them. But they're really not preventing the problem. We see the same people coming back to food banks over and over and over. We want to get those folks in a position where they aren't going to need food assistance in the first place.

I mean, people aren't hungry because they don't have access to food; they're hungry because they don't have the resources to get food for themselves. To simply feed people doesn't get them out of that situation.

Plus, the banks only get food that lends itself to being donated--it's not necessarily the most nutritious food. People walk in and find potato chips and day-old bread--stuff like that as opposed to fresh produce and meat.

As a result, food banks are starting programs like Super Pantry, which has nutrition education components and referrals to other social services right at the food bank or pantry where you get your food.

Q: The way you raise money has changed too.

A: For quite a period of time, Taste of the Nation and Share Our Strength were synonymous. Taste was not just one thing we did; it was the only thing we did. Now the organization has grown in a lot of different directions. We've been able to build major marketing partnerships. We've licensed the phrase "Taste of the Nation" and have benefited from products--from saute pans to cookbooks--created under that name.

We don't have any government money; we have very little foundation money--I'd say less than 1% of our total budget. Instead of fighting for our share of the charity pie, we decided to make the pie grow.

In 1993, when we started the Charge Against Hunger campaign with American Express, we doubled the size of our grant-making abilities.

Q: What results have you gotten from all the money you've raised?

A: Fifteen years ago people on the street were hungry and had no place to go. The miraculous thing is that there is a place for everybody to go today. With this incredible patchwork of emergency food services--food banks, soup kitchens, church basements--almost every community can help its hungry. It may not be ideal, but at least there shouldn't be people who are genuinely starving.

Q: So the problem is solved?

A: Most people think the issue isn't as serious as it once was, but in fact, there are huge numbers of people using emergency food assistance right now. The Conference of Mayors recently issued a report that showed 81% of 34 cities surveyed experienced an increase in the demand for emergency food assistance in more than 20 cities that were surveyed. Remember that welfare reform was not just a cut in AFDC but a $28-billion cut in food stamps. And $14 billion of that cut affected families who were making less than half of poverty levels, which is around $6,500 a year.

The paradox of where we are today is that prosperity hides hunger. Yes, people can go to food banks if they're hungry, but food banks should be the last resort. The tough part of the job is getting people to support something they haven't had an appetite for in some time--a sustained attack on the root causes of poverty.

The solutions aren't simple. It's popular to feed babies, but that's not enough. We need to spend our money in ways that are not just popular but right.

Q: What do you have in mind?

A: I'm talking about job training, community organizing and serving a disadvantaged population that is not well understood.

One program we've started is Operation Front Line, which is in 10 cities so far--none, I'm sorry to say, in Southern California. The idea is to move chefs from food lines to the front lines. We train chefs on nutrition and other issues, then we deploy them into health clinics, community centers, parent-child centers--wherever there are young families or young moms on food assistance. The chefs and the restaurateurs do a six- to eight-week series of classes on nutrition education, cooking, grocery shopping skills, food budgeting, really helping the moms to understand that there are food products available to help them do some very inventive things that are healthy and much more economical.

For example, if you're taught to carve a chicken, you can buy a whole chicken as opposed to buying chicken parts. There's a big cost savings in doing that. In other cases, it's about doing things that are healthy for your children, baked apples stuffed with different types of nuts, things like that.

It's really designed so that chefs can do more than stand around at fancy events helping us raise money. They have a specialized knowledge that could make a difference.

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