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July 12, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

A Conversation with WhyHunger’s Executive Director Bill Ayres

Bill Ayres is the executive director of WhyHunger, an anti-hunger organization he co-founded in 1975. Summer is an important time of year to focus on child hunger, which Sesame Workshop’s Food For Thought outreach initiative is committed to battling. Ayres sat down with the Workshop to explain how his organization fights child hunger, why it is such an important issue during the summer months and why his organization utilizes the anti-hunger materials Sesame Workshop makes available.

To put it simply, Why hunger? Why, as Americans, is hunger an issue that we should be concerned about?

Well, that is our name: WhyHunger. We have that name because we are asking the question, why is there hunger in the richest country in the world? Why is there hunger in a world that can feed itself? Hunger is an obscenity. Hunger in America is the ultimate obscenity. There are about 17 million children and 49 million people all together that are food insecure. That means they aren’t starving but they miss meals and they eat less. They don’t get the right kinds of food. That is devastating for kids especially.

What does WhyHunger do to battle this obscenity?

WhyHunger is a grassroots support organization, working with thousands of community-based organizations across the country and around the world that are combating the root causes of hunger – poverty, powerlessness, and the lack of access to nutritious foods. We run the only National Hunger Hotline,  1-866-3-HUNGRY, and connect callers across the country to local emergency food providers, government nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), summer feeding sites, and other services.

June, July and August are especially important months to focus on issues of hunger. Why is that?

The time when kids are hungriest is the summer because they aren’t getting school lunches and breakfasts. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program only reaches about 15 percent of the 20 million kids who are eligible. There are many reasons for that. One is geography. If you’re out in the country, it’s difficult to distribute.

The other reason is that you have to know about a local site. We’ve signed up almost 15,000 sites where kids can get a free lunch or a free breakfast. It might be a park, a school, a church or a temple. We work with the USDA, community organizations, and the media to build awareness about the program and let the public know they can find a local site by calling 1-866-3-HUNGRY. We’re working hard to get more kids into the summer feeding program.

Is anything being done to help the children who aren’t near a summer feeding program?

There is a pilot project that is in places where there is no summer feeding program. The USDA puts fifty extra dollars a month during June, July and August on the SNAP card for the family of every kid that is eligible. Last summer the project was in eight places.

I’m told the results from last year were spectacular. It cut down on hunger. It made kids better prepared to go to school. Nutrition aids cognition. Teachers will tell you that if kids are hungry, they are fussy in class. It’s a serious problem. Hopefully, the program will continue to grow.

WhyHunger utilizes Sesame Workshop’s Food for Thought outreach resources. What do you like about the resources?

I like it. I think it’s very holistic. The quality of food that kids are eating is especially important. Low-income kids are especially prone to obesity. You are bucking the whole food system, because the food system is focused on fast food and non-nutritious food. I think Sesame Workshop does a tremendous job.  Education is an enormously important thing. We’ve got an epidemic of obesity among adults and children.

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