11/12/2010

Noted Actor Helps Kick Off 'No Kids Hungry' Campaign

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Many of us will forever associate the actor Jeff Bridges with a character known as "The Dude" in the movie "The Big Lebowski." Now, AFT members can get to know him as chief spokesman for the No Kid Hungry campaign that's launching in November, sponsored by the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength and supported by the AFT.

An anti-hunger activist since 1983, when he founded the End Hunger Network, the Oscar winner is dead set on meeting the SOS campaign's goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015, and he can cite the ugly facts to support his cause. About 17 million children in our nation aren't sure they'll have enough food from day to day. Only about half of the 19 million kids eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches actually get them. And only 15 percent of the children eligible for summer food programs are participating.

Hungry children, Bridges notes, fall behind in school, don't acquire the same educational and technical skills as well-nourished children, and wind up in a workforce that isn't as strong as it should be. Hunger is complicated by many issues, he says: School bus drivers on long routes may not be able to get kids to school on time for breakfast programs; children and parents may feel ashamed to accept free or subsidized food; and there's too much red tape in the upper reaches of school food programs.

photo by Lyn Hughes for Share Our Strength

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Share Our Strength Founder Billy Shore and No Kid Hungry spokesperson and Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges at the National Press Club Luncheon where they unveiled Share Our Strength's campaign to end childhood hunger by 2015.

"Poverty is complicated, but feeding a child is not," Bridges told a packed house of hunger activists and journalists at the National Press Club on Nov. 10. "We can do that. Come on! We're the guys! This is our country."

Bridges urged those nearest the problem to help rouse the rest of the country. "Look in your heart and figure out what you can do," he said. "If you're a teacher, my gosh, the No Kid Hungry campaign falls right in line with what teachers do. You've got to think long term on this issue. It's not just a hunger issue. It's an educational deal."

He cited a school cafeteria manager who uses her school meals budget to shop for more nutritious food than the USDA commodities program provides. She grows a school vegetable garden, too. He also gave several shout-outs to teachers for their involvement in the No Kid Hungry campaign. (See earlier story.)

Bridges also hailed Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the first state executive pledging to lead a No Kid Hungry state. Solving the problem of hunger, O'Malley told those attending the luncheon and press conference, is a matter of organizing people, signing up children for school meals, educating families and making steady progress. "You can't just wake up in 2015 and say, 'Golly! This is the year we wanted to eradicate child hunger!' "

SOS founder Billy Shore said the advocacy group and its allies had just met with the U.S. agriculture secretary, who promised that if the Senate passes its version of a child nutrition bill, the Obama administration will work to make sure that any cuts made to balance the federal budget won't harm school food programs.

Asked about the hardest role he ever played, Bridges choked up and needed to take a minute. "This is the most important thing: the reality of ending child hunger," he said.

He encouraged everyone to take the No Kid Hungry pledge online and urge their members of Congress to pass the nutrition bill. "When you participate, you feel connected," he said. "And that feels good." [Annette Licitra, photo by Lyn Hughes for Share Our Strength]

November 12, 2010