How a Nonprofit Found a Startling Way to End Child Hunger

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Billy Shore tells Wharton professor Katherine Klein about his nonprofit's innovative approach to its mission.

Billy Shore, founder of nonprofit Share Our Strength, decided years ago that child hunger in the U.S. was “a solvable issue” and launched the ‘No Kid Hungry’ program. And success was easier to attain than he thought: The nonprofit discovered that there was federal funding for school meals that wasn’t being tapped by states and cities. By alerting and helping school districts to access those funds, the organization was able to nourish another 3.2 million kids. Shore shared his strategies with Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, who is also vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Katherine Klein: What is the problem of hunger in the U.S.? What is the problem with food insecurity? What’s hunger? What’s food insecurity?

Billy Shore: Hunger and food insecurity are actually different. Hunger in the U.S. affects various populations, but the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation that they’re in are children. And we’ve got millions of kids in the country – about one in six – who suffer or struggle with hunger in some way or with food insecurity.

The most important thing to understand about hunger in the U.S. is that it’s a solvable problem. I wouldn’t have to give you a single fact or statistic for you to know that kids here aren’t hungry for the reasons that kids around the rest of the world are hungry. It’s not war or famine or drought. Kids are hungry here not because we don’t have food, and not because we don’t have food programs, like the food stamp program or school breakfast or school lunch, but because we haven’t done a good job of connecting them. So hunger is solvable. And hunger is kind of a physiological issue. Are you getting three meals a day? Are you getting the proper nutrition? Are you getting the calories and the protein that your body needs to grow?

Food insecurity is a measure that comes from surveying people and asking a whole series of questions that are more socioeconomic in nature. Do you make enough money to feel like you can buy your family the best foods? Do you ever have anxiety that you’re not going to be able to feed your children as well as you’d like to?

“The consequences of being hungry when you’re a child developmentally can last you the rest of your life.”

There are a lot of families and children who live in food insecurity but may not actually be experiencing hunger. They’re both important, but in a triage sense, you want to make sure that kids at a minimum are not hungry, that they’re not missing meals and having all of the negative effects that come with that.

Klein: Why focus on kids? Why not focus on families, communities?

Shore: Well, for a couple of reasons. When Share Our Strength started 34 years ago, we were focusing on hunger in Ethiopia. We were focusing on hunger all across the U.S. – seniors, families. And one of the things that we thought about was: How do we not just alleviate the problem or ameliorate it, but how do we actually solve it? Or is there some piece of what we’re doing that we can solve?

There’s a writer named Jonathan Kozol who says that you should pick battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win. I love that construct, because there are so many things that all of us care about. When you think about what’s big enough to matter, but small enough to win, maybe we can’t solve Syria or the Middle East or climate change or end violence.

But when it comes to kids in this country who are hungry, that is big enough to matter but small enough to win. The consequences of being hungry when you’re a child developmentally can last you the rest of your life. We thought that that was a winnable issue, and we’ve actually made tremendous progress against it. If you ask me this question five or six or seven years from now, I’m pretty sure we’ll say that we’ve still got poverty, we’ve still got food insecurity, and we’ve still got hunger, but we don’t have hungry kids in the U.S.

Klein: You’ve written and talked about how you made a significant shift in Share Our Strength about 10 years ago. What made you make an organizational pivot? What was that pivot, and how did you know it was time to make one?

Shore: Share Our Strength was a grantmaker to probably 300 to 400 other nonprofits around the country.

Klein: So you all were raising money, and then distributing it.

Shore: Yes. For the first 20 years of our existence, what most people knew about us, if they knew anything, was that we had this very entrepreneurial way of generating revenues. We didn’t have any government money or foundation money or high donor program or direct mail. We basically made money. We organized chefs and restaurateurs to do events for us, corporate marketing partnerships, and cause-related marketing. Even today we have contracts with dozens of corporate partners that fund our organization. It puts us in the position of not competing with brother and sister organizations, and not having any strings attached to the dollars, so we can spend them as strategically as we wish.

We were raising that money, bringing new money into the field, granting it out. It was satisfying to almost everybody, except for a handful of us at the center of the organization who were asking ourselves, in effect, “Is the glass half empty or half full? Are we moving the needle? Are we solving a problem, or are we just putting a Band-Aid on it?”

And so we realized that we really needed to put a stake in the ground. We needed to [do what] Jonathan Kozol [said in the] sense of “what’s big enough to matter, but small enough to win?” Could we pick an area and hold ourselves accountable to actually solving it? It felt like childhood hunger would be the place to do that. It required a big culture shift on the part of the organization. All of a sudden, we weren’t just the big guys giving out money to others. We were accountable to achieving a very specific outcome.

Klein: One way I could interpret what you were saying is you made a decision to focus your efforts. Many organizations do that. They say, “Oh, we’re too broad. Our messaging is too unfocused. We need to focus.” It sounds like you’re saying this was a change about focusing, but it was more than that.

Shore: That’s a really interesting distinction you’re making, because it was about focusing and accountability. And the accountability piece was so important for us. In one sense, it’s kind of absurd that one little nonprofit organization would say, “We’re accountable for ending childhood hunger. We’re just one of many organizations. The government plays a much bigger role than we do.”

But one of the things that we observed in the space that we were working in is there was a real dynamic of almost everybody pointing the finger at somebody else. Advocates in Washington would get legislation passed, and then the governors wouldn’t implement it the way they should — or the local organizations wouldn’t. Everybody else was saying, “I did my job. It’s somebody else’s fault.” So in just the classic, “the buck stops here” sense, somebody’s got to raise their hand and say, “We’ll be responsible for getting this done until it’s done.”

It was in one sense a little bit audacious, but in the other sense, it gave our stakeholders a real palpable sense of, “We can judge where these guys are against their goal” in a world where you don’t know if you’re getting a better return on investment by giving money to Habitat for Humanity or Teach for America or Share Our Strength. Some years we came closer, and some years we didn’t come as close as we said we would.

“You don’t think of nonprofits as being in the business of creating wealth or generating revenues, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t.”

Klein: This has energized your donors and your partners, I gather?

Shore: I think so. I think in a very big way it had a catalytic impact on them. It gave them just the confidence that we would succeed and the notion that this is not something we’re going to be asking them to support forever. There is an end point. The consulting firm Bridgespan calls it an “arrival point.”

Klein: With the ‘No Kid Hungry’ campaign – capturing that with those three words – you shifted the focus and said, “We’re going to end childhood hunger.” How?

Shore: We define “ending hunger” as making sure kids had three meals a day. Usually, at least where their parents are poor or food-insecure or what have you, they’re probably able to afford at least one meal for their kids. They may not be able to afford three. But low-income kids in this country get a free or reduced-price school lunch. That’s a program that was set up in 1946, when generals and admirals returned from World War II, and they said to Congress, “Our recruits by the end of the year were not strong enough, and they weren’t fit enough. So we need to start feeding kids in school better.

Then they added the School Breakfast Program in 1966. So we’ve got today 22 million kids in the country who qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch. All 22 million are eligible for breakfast, as well, but when we looked at this eight years ago, only nine million of the 22 million were getting it — less than 50%. But the crazy thing is that it’s bought and paid for, for all 22 million. That was the opportunity to start enrolling kids. We’ve done that with breakfast, and with summer meals and other programs, as well.

Klein: But you’re not a government agency saying, “Hey, school district, put in this program,” or “Hey – whatever the place is – deliver those kids’ breakfasts.” What do you actually do?

Shore: We’re going into school districts and saying, “There’s this program available. If you want to participate in it, there may be some things you need in terms of startup costs that we will pay. You might need insulated carts on wheels. You might need to redo your cafeteria. You might need to hire more cafeteria workers. But we will pay for that, if you do what you need to do to enroll in the federal government’s School Breakfast Program. The meals are 100% federally reimbursed. So you can go to any governor in the country and say, “Governor, did you realize that you left $150 million – or whatever the number is – in Washington? And no matter how conservative or how liberal they are, they all say, “What do I have to do to get it?”

Klein: You made this shift in around 2010. You said you’re making good progress on the metrics you count. So tell us about that progress.

“We’ve got today 22 million kids in the country who qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch. … [But] only nine million of the 22 million were getting it.”

Shore: Well, we’ve added about 3.2 million kids to the School Breakfast Program. Of the 22 million kids who get lunch, not all 22 million of them should get breakfast, because some will have breakfast at home with mom and dad or grandparents, or whatever, and that’s great. But the right number is probably about 15 million or 16 million, and today we’re at about 12.5 million — closer to 13 million. So adding 3 million kids to a school breakfast program over just five or six years has been a really enormous task. And we did it in one very simple way.

This program started 50 years ago. It has always run the same way forever, with almost no changes. And somebody said, “What if we moved breakfast from the cafeteria, where kids have to get there early – and many of them can’t, because of the bus driver’s schedule or their mom and dad’s schedule or what have you. Then there’s the stigma attached to being the kids who get to school early. What if we moved breakfast from the cafeteria to the first 10 minutes of the first period?

So when you propose that, two things happen. One is, everybody you possibly can think of objects to that idea. The teachers don’t want food in the classroom, etc. But the other thing that happens is participation rates go to almost 95%. And [afterwards] – sometimes as short as a week – the teachers embrace it. And they say, “Oh, now I see why this is a good thing.” Of the 3.2 million kids that we’ve added, which is across thousands of schools – nobody has ever gone back to the old way.

Klein: Having made this shift and pursued this change in strategy for 10 years, what’s the advice that you would give to other organizations – whether it’s a for-profit or a nonprofit that may be thinking, “We’re not doing as well as we could. We’re not having the impact, whether it’s social impact, whether it’s financial performance – we’re not where we should be. We need to focus, hold ourselves accountable.”

“If you don’t have professional staff, if you don’t train them well, if you don’t retain them, then you’re really wasting donors’ money.”

Shore: There are three or four things that apply to many efforts, not just our work in hunger and food security. One is what I put under the umbrella of “Go big or go home.” Have a big goal. Put a stake in the ground. Stand behind it. Have a goal that’s big enough to inspire people. The second is to be willing to build your own capacity and to make the assertion that building your capacity will lead to impact. In the nonprofit world, everybody wants to know what your overhead costs are and what you pay in salaries.

They want you to put as much money out into the community as you possibly can. That’s great, and for the most noble of reasons. But if you don’t have professional staff, if you don’t train them well, if you don’t retain them, then you’re really wasting donors’ money. So building your own capacity is key. This accountability issue is also very important.

Finally, public policy has to play a very important role. There are very few problems that nonprofits can solve on their own. There are things they can do in terms of innovating and taking risks, but when it comes to scaling up a good idea that they’ve created or they’ve advanced, you’re going to need public support.

Klein: Do you think there are other sectors or other problems where there is – as you put it – “money left on the table,” where the public policy exists but isn’t being implemented as effectively as it could and should be?

Shore: Yes. There are a lot of places where the advocates work so hard to get a policy to become law that once it does, they’re onto the next thing, and nobody really looks back.

I had this interesting conversation with Marian Wright Edelman from the Children’s Defense Fund, who’s the iconic leader in this space. We were talking about what battles we should be fighting. She said, “Well, I think we should pay attention to what Share Our Strength is doing, because we fought and won these battles 40 years ago. So before we go fight the next ones, let’s make sure that what we won actually happens and comes to pass.”

There’s a little bit of this in the health care and the child health space, in particular. There are states that don’t fully utilize the Child Health Insurance Program. But in terms of just performance and execution issues, separate from money, there’s a lot of improvement that could be made across the board in terms of different policies.

Klein: A big part of your model has been this partnering with corporations. I’d love to hear more about what corporations give you, and what they get from it. Then I’d like to talk more expansively about the role of business in fighting hunger and food insecurity.

Shore: There’s a big role for the business community, and a role for nonprofits, to think about not just redistributing wealth, but actually creating wealth. You don’t think of nonprofits as being in the business of creating wealth or generating revenues, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t. I have a friend who always says that nonprofit should be a tax status, not your management philosophy.

You want to make money and use it for the things that you do. As we started to organize chefs and restaurateurs to get involved in the hunger issue – since they made their livelihoods from food – we thought they would feel connected to the issue of hunger. Companies that marketed into the chef and restaurant industry, that had something to sell them, were coming to us saying, “You’re a more efficient marketer than we are. You’ve got 500 of the chefs that we want to be carrying our product. How about instead of us going to 500 of them one at a time, we strike up a partnership with Share Our Strength?”

Citibank is a good example. They want chefs and restaurateurs to use a Visa card instead of an American Express card. They want to go into the restaurant and have the conversation a little bit differently than, “Here’s the point spread on our card and the fees.” They want to go in and say, “Hey, you and I – we’re both partners with Share Our Strength. Why don’t we have a partnership together?” Williams Sonoma, Fiji Water, illy Espresso – lots of companies have realized that there are some benefits to doing that.

“You don’t think of nonprofits as being in the business of creating wealth or generating revenues, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t.”

There’s also the important issue of just because they’re human beings like you and me, they want to be doing something useful. They want to be having an impact. Some of them get involved for marketing reasons, but then stay involved, because they find it really fulfilling to be able to offer their employees this opportunity to have a big difference.

Klein: We often hear about social impact engagement by corporations for all those reasons, right? Through philanthropy, for marketing, for engagement, for reputation, and even a real belief in the social issues. As you think about the next 10 years, is there this notion that businesses should pay more attention to social issues? That business can and should have a social impact, and it should be part of the mission of the organization and the business model – not necessarily through philanthropy or marketing, but core to business?

Shore: Yes. It’s related to what’s going on in social media and the pressure it creates on business. You and I are having this conversation on the day that Dick’s, the sporting goods store, announced that they’re no longer going to stock the AR-15.There’s been this terrible [school shooting] incident in Parkland, Fla., and gun safety has now risen to the top. We’ve seen just in the last 10 days dozens of companies start to change their relationship with the National Rifle Association, because they believe it’s important for their business. It’s probably something that they’ve wanted to do perhaps anyhow but maybe didn’t have the courage or didn’t realize it aligned with business reasons.

So yes, I think business leaders are going to play a larger and larger role, and certainly in our case, if we’ve got the CEO of a company that can write a letter to the governor. The CEO of Deloitte Joe Echevarria (since retired) did a press conference with us, in which he said, “We hire 30,000 young people a year. So we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a pool of young people who are healthy and fit and fed and [who] do well in school. And that’s the reason we’re so supportive of the school breakfast work.” So all of a sudden the lens shifts from this anti-poverty advocate – me – to this respected business leader saying, “This is good for the economy.” So yes, I think business will play more of a role.

Klein: If somebody wants to learn more about food insecurity, hunger, volunteer, make a difference – do you have resources for people to pursue?

Shore: Yes, we’ve got a lot of them. Our best link to our website is nokidhungry.org, but we’ve also got a Center for Best Practices that talks about all of the ways that communities around the country are working on these issues of hunger, food insecurity and poverty. We’ve got a list of all the events that people can volunteer at or donate to.

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