Photo © Courtesy of No Kid Hungry
Ending childhood hunger is far from easy, but with a team of teachers, chefs, community leaders, parents, lawmakers, and executives who share the same dream of a world free from hunger, No Kid Hungry has provided over 1 billion meals since its inception in 2010.
We sat down with three food heroes, Billy Shore, Founder & Executive Chairof No Kid Hungry, Rachel Sabella, New York Director of No Kid Hungry, and Henry Street Settlement partner Chef Alex Raij, owner of El Quinto Pino, to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the culinary landscape and the fight against childhood hunger.
Over a million children in New York could face hunger this year due to the pandemic. Is there a particular region of the state you have seen with an especially steep rise in food insecurity? Is it more challenging to reach kids with the meals they need in a rural community or a heavily populated urban one?
Food insecurity has grown in every corner of our state, from Suffolk County to New York City to Binghamton and beyond. Hunger is in every community, and it can look very different. Statewide, as many as a million kids could face hunger this year—a drastic uptick as a result of the pandemic.
There are challenges and opportunities everywhere when it comes to providing meals, and across the board school nutrition staff have risen to the occasion. In urban areas, people have been hesitant to use public transportation, so walkable sites have been very important. In some of our more rural communities where families may live far from a meal site, delivery models have been really successful. It’s also been critical to offer flexible hours so parents can pick up meals as part of their commute.
Can you speak to how No Kid Hungry has worked with school districts across the state to ensure children who depended on free school meals still have access to food? Have you seen a rise in the number of children who rely on free meals since the start of the pandemic?
This crisis has brought unique challenges for educators, parents and students alike—among the most important of these challenges has been ensuring kids get the meals they need to succeed. With increased food insecurity, more kids need meals than ever before, but with many students learning virtually, it’s harder to reach kids with the food they need.
Between the start of the pandemic in March and the end of 2020, No Kid Hungry New York granted more than $2.5 million dollars to schools and community organizations feeding kids across the state. These grants helped with the added staffing and equipment costs required to expand and adapt their programs to meet increased need, operate safely under these unprecedented circumstances, and switch back and forth between in-person and remote learning.
Every school district in our state has stepped up to feed kids. I really can’t say it enough—the school nutrition staff who continue to work day in and day out, at times putting their own health at risk to serve meals and support their community are the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
What can a concerned New York resident do to solve hunger in New York?
Reach out to your member of Congress and local elected officials and ask them to support programs that feed kids and families. That means allowing schools and community organizations the flexibility they need to serve meals in a way that reaches the children that need them and expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits so families can buy groceries.
We also want help spreading the word about the availability of meals—families can text FOOD to 877-877 to find meals at no cost in their community.
Chef Alex Raji
Chef-owner, La Vara, Txikito, El Quinto Pino, and Saint Julivert Fisherie
Can you tell us more about your history with No Kid Hungry and your current work with the Henry Street Settlement?
Prior to COVID, most of my experience with No Kid Hungry was helping to raise money for their programs. I had the extreme privilege of participating as a guest chef at several No Kid Hungry Dinners, which have raised thousands of dollars to help end childhood hunger. But when COVID-19 hit, my partner Eder and I wanted to find a way to pivot to cooking directly for those in need in our neighborhood on the Lower East Side, so Henry Street Settlement was my first call. No Kid Hungry helped make our partnership possible.
How did you and your husband, Eder Montero, find your passion for giving back and supporting your community?
As chefs, we know intuitively that feeding people, and especially children, improves their long-term outcomes. But the pandemic has really shifted our perspective on how to show up for our community. While we have always engaged with other chefs to raise money and awareness, we also needed to provide security for our staff members who had the rug pulled out from under them, too. It was jarring. We are so grateful for organizations like Henry Street Settlement and No Kid Hungry, which helped us keep our staff employed while also providing nourishment for our neighbors in need.
In a time when many restaurants in NYC are forced to close their doors, why is it important to you to stay open? Explain your journey in the last year since the onset of the pandemic.
After being closed by the government mandate last March, we definitely thought it would be short term, but quickly we realized was this was a long game. We spent the first few weeks cleaning and helping our employees navigate their options for assistance. Then, after receiving the second round of PPP funding, we were able to reopen our Brooklyn restaurant for takeout and outdoor dining. Our Chelsea restaurants are located in an area where most of our customers fled the city. So we began to look for opportunities to do relief meals. We were so excited that our partnership with Henry Street Settlement and No Kid Hungry could provide safe employment for 4 full time employees at 2 restaurants. Our staff really took ownership over these meals, and we were astonished to see how much variety and care they put into those meals.
COVID-19 has made it harder for vulnerable families and youth to rely on the food programs that regularly operate. What is needed to ensure that families can have access to nutritious food during a pandemic?
Unlike other parts of the world, hunger in America is not due to a scarcity of food. Our nation has the food supplies and it has robust, effective nutrition programs that can reach those in need during this crisis. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school lunch and school breakfast, WIC, and Pandemic EBT all exist, and we must make sure they’re accessible to all families that need them. School meals are free and available for all students at schools all over the nation right now. We know the solutions, but we need to create the political will to enact them and ensure families, some who may be facing hunger for the first time, know these programs exist.
That is No Kid Hungry’s plan. We will continue to work with schools and local organizations, providing the investment funds and technical assistance they need to continue their work to feed kids. We advocate for strong, smart policies from federal, state, and local lawmakers and agencies. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last March, No Kid Hungry has been deploying emergency grants to organizations across the country that are feeding kids; by the end of 2020, we were on track to provide a total of $60M. And to ensure that we can continue responding at scale to meet this unprecedented need, we’ve launched an effort called The Monday Fund to raise and deploy $100M by 2023. My hope is that through the work of No Kid Hungry, we strengthen families and the programs that support them like SNAP, and eliminate the bureaucratic and logistical barriers that make these programs hard to access. By doing this, we will not only feed kids but be on our way to seeing a world where no kid hungry is a reality.
The global health crisis has brought to light the systems of inequality that plight low-income Americans and communities of color. What steps can we take to address this and ensure that more funding, more innovation, and more collaboration goes into helping marginalized communities thrive?
Putting an end to hunger starts with getting to the root of why kids are going hungry. Americans with low-income and especially those of color do not always have the access to resources, health care, nutrition, housing, and safe spaces that are essential to protecting the health of their families. That’s why we’re prioritizing deploying emergency grants to provide funding, resources, and hands-on guidance to organizations and areas throughout the U.S. where there is the most need. This includes rural and high poverty/low resource areas, communities of color, and particularly marginalized groups with deeper investments in states and areas hit hardest economically, along with organizations led by people of color. These are big challenges, but there are solutions. They will require us all to work harder, collaborate more, invest in more communities, innovate new solutions, and have tough conversations about the root causes of racism and poverty.
Times of crisis tend to bring out the everyday heroes who want to make a positive impact on their communities, from donors, to volunteers, to chefs! How has No Kid Hungry seen members step up to feed Americans during the pandemic?
It’s been incredible to see so many stepping up and doing what they can to make sure kids are fed. The passion, creative innovation and drive of people monetizing what they do—or “sharing their strengths”—to raise funds has been so inspiring.
Fitness trainer Isaac Calpito has raised more than $1M for No Kid Hungry by hosting a daily livestream of his TORCH’D workout on Instagram, recruiting celeb friends like Vanessa Hudgens, Lisa Rinna, and Kelly Ripa.
Restaurant partners like Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill launched round-up campaigns, where their customers can round up their change at checkout and 100 percent of proceeds come to No Kid Hungry. Taco Bell raised over $4.2M for No Kid Hungry in just six weeks, simply by asking customers to round up their change.
Despite challenges facing the restaurant industry, the culinary community has found ways to nourish their communities in collaboration with No Kid Hungry. Chefs from across the country like Alex Raij, Patrick Mulvaney, Erik Bruner-Yang, and John Rivers and more set up feeding operations in partnership with local school districts and health agencies, collectively providing thousands of meals to kids in need.
In partnership with honorary chairs and hunger champions Ayesha and Stephen Curry, as well as Sam Kass and Rachael Ray, plus an incredible campaign team led by co-chairs Renee and John Grisham and Carrie and Leigh Abramson, we’ve launched The Monday Fund, a recovery campaign to raise and deploy $100 million by 2023 to feed kids through the crisis and in its recovery. Funds raised will be invested in schools and community organizations on the front lines and will help secure policies and solutions to strengthen the safety net for children, helping families prevent hunger at home and when school is out.
There are so many ways to get involved and support this work, whether it’s sharing resources in your community, writing a letter to your local lawmakers to urge them to strengthen programs like SNAP, or donating if you’re able. You can learn more by visiting NoKidHungry.org
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No child should go hungry in a nation as wealthy as ours. But millions of kids are living with hunger right now because of the pandemic. With No Kid Hungry, you can help change that for good.