Savoring the Hope of Ending Child Hunger
oP: Debbie, you are in charge of outreach to the next generation of chefs how are you going about that?
DS: We have to stay on top of who are the emerging chefs and develop new relationships as well as maintaining current relationships. For example, today, one of our chefs introduced me to his sous-chef. We have to re-focus awareness. Our key chefs are now 20 years older, as we all are.
One of the ways we’re doing that is to develop more platforms for chefs. The Great American Dine-out is our national fundraising event in the fall. We can use it to involve all segments of the restaurant industry, who are willing to contribute a small percentage of one week’s sales to the campaign to end childhood hunger. This will include some of the chains, such as California Pizza Kitchen and others, for the first time.
We started it after Hurricane Katrina, and raised $1 million in 3 weeks. Of course, that was an absolute catastrophe with an incredible response. But if we can at least capture a percentage of the sales, it’s worth doing.
oP: How has SOS changed since you and your brother Bill first started?
DS: Operationally, we have grown, but we still have a staff of only about 50 people. We’ve raised more than $200 million over 20 years which we’ve given out to hundreds of organizations. Our staff handles grantmaking, reading RFP’s, and communicating with grantees. We also have our communications staff and corporate development team, as well as our ongoing work with the chefs.
oP: What are the challenges now that you’ve come so far in 20 years?
DS: We need to have more of a local presence. Right now, we do that on a volunteer basis. But in addition to handing out money, it’s positioned us to do something “big enough to inspire and small enough to attain,” as my brother Bill says. So we want to make best use of all the relationships we’ve built as well as the knowledge we’ve amassed, in order to succeed in our mission of making sure no kid in America grows up hungry.
oP: Does your mission also encompass concerns about other aspects of poor nutrition childhood obesity, for example?
DS: Definitely. Our mission is to feed kids nutritious food where they go to school, where they live, in their communities. Sometimes, where there are food programs in place, they’re not always well funded, or don’t have nutritious foods. Obesity is the other side of the hunger issue. It’s the same problem: lack of proper nutrition. We have to turn around that perception. When people see overweight children, they think there is not a hunger issue.
We’ve done a whole re-branding around childhood hunger. If you watch the video prepared by our TV partner, the Food Network, it discusses food banks. Sometimes, all they have available are bread and sweets, so the kids get calories but not enough nutrients.
onPhilanthropy also spoke with – and sampled the culinary offerings of – some of the chefs who lead the effort for Taste of the Nation, about the challenges of getting up-and-coming chefs to participate. R.J. Cooper III, from Washington DC’s Vidalia restaurant, said it’s definitely become more difficult: “It’s a different generation the Me generation.” David Burke, noted chef and proprietor of several renowned American restaurants, is national spokesperson for the Taste of the Nation 20th anniversary celebration: “When I started, back when I was at River Café, chefs had a long tradition of giving back. And you felt it was an honor to be invited. Now, it’s become more difficult to get chefs involved. When you look at the economics, it’s hard for some chefs because you have to leave the restaurant, donate the food and the labor. When we started, some chefs were willing to do it for the publicity. Now, there are more ways for potential clients to communicate about a restaurant through email, for example so there are other ways to get the word out. Still, chefs have become celebrities in this country, and celebrity comes at a price: you have to give back. Now, when I read the stats on all the money that Taste of a Nation has raised and all the work SOS has done, I have to say it gives me a great feeling I think, “I’m part of something good here.”
Other noted chefs participating in Taste of the Nation are Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill and Ciudad in Los Angeles); Floyd Cardoz, of Tabla in New York; Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s in New Orleans; Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere and Acme Chop House, San Francisco; Pano I Karatassos of Kyma and Buckhead Life Restaurant Group in Atlanta; Stephen Pyles (Stephen Pyles Restaurant, Dallas) and Allen Susser of Chef Allen’s in Miami.
The official 20th anniversary celebration for Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, presented by American Express, will be held in March in 55 cities across the United States and Canada. For more information, visit http://www.tasteofthenation.org/.