A Letter To The Members of The National Commission On Hunger

Earlier this year, as part of 2014 Appropriations Bill, Congress authorized the creation of The National Commission on Hunger.  The Commission, which is composed of ten members, is charged with developing a report on new strategies to solve the problem of hunger and food insecurity in America.  The commission will also examine ways to partner with the faith, nonprofit, and business community. (A more complete description of the Commission is available here.)

The first meeting of the Commission is next week, so I thought I would provide a few recommendations/ideas to help the group with their work.

Dear Members of The National Commission on Hunger:

I am not an expert in the issue of hunger. I am not directly involved with any hunger services organizations (though I was a strategic adviser to Feeding America for several years).  But, I know hunger is a solvable issue. In fact, I think hunger may be one of the most solvable issues facing our society today - and at the same time I don’t think we are getting anywhere closer to finding or creating or implementing solutions that will truly address hunger in a meaningful and measurable way.  I continue to be frustrated by the fact that we haven’t made more progress.

Its not just the issue of hunger - so much of what is happening in the social good/social entrepreneurship space seems to me to be focused on the wrong things.  As I have said over and over again, we don’t need another, awareness campaign, we don’t need another app or contest or celebrity endorsement to raise awareness.  People know hunger is an issue. Important people. Normal people. People with means, and intelligence, and capacity to have great influence over how policy is shaped or solutions are developed - they know that hunger is a solvable problem. But we need those people to focus in the right ways. We need to make progress towards meeting our goals, delivering the kinds of outcomes that we know are possible - so we can start to have different conversations about how to solve hunger.

That was the big idea behind WeCanEndThis - a project that Scott Henderson (@ScottyHendo, CauseShift), Anne Mai Bertelsen (@AnneMai, Mai Strategies) and I launched in 2010 to spark innovation and a broader engagement in the movement to end hunger in America. Here is how we described the effort:

The project is designed to allow - and ensure - that a diverse group of individuals and organizations are working together, along with our cause partners (Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and Capital Area Food Bank of Texas) to help solve a major social issue. Over the next year, as WeCanEndThis moves forward, the effort to find new and different approaches to ending hunger will continue.

WeCanEndThis officially launched at SXSW and hunger was designated as the official cause of the festival, a first for the event. The big event for WeCanEndThis at SXSW was something we called the “CauseLab,” a day long, multi-part, cross-discipline, brainstorming session. We invited lots of smart, innovative, collaborative minded thought leaders to help dream up to develop innovative solutions that address three central challenges: 

  • Building the Hunger Organization of the Future (and how that structure can create a hunger-free society)
  • Humanizing the data (and how we make hunger relevant, and top of mind, to people across the nation)
  • Advancing local activation (including how to make systemic changes in communities everywhere)

(This Q&A with Kari Saratovsky for the Case Foundation explains a lot of the thinking behind this approach)

The CauseLab was a huge success – the room was packed, the ideas were flying, and some different ways of thinking about how to address hunger in America started to emerge. Three potentially game-changing ideas for how the hunger community might re-consider the approach to this issue emerged from the discussion - and I think some parts of what were developed are relevant to your work.

Those big ideas included:

  • Hunger data consortium: In the years since we launched WeCanEndThis, ‘big data’ has become one of the most important and disruptive tools for solving complex problems. At the time, we talked about data being used to incentivize behavior - to help make people smarter about what choices to make and how to act.  The problem with an issue like hunger (and social issues more generally) is that the data that is available today, both to help organizations and individuals to understand the issue of hunger as well as explore potential solutions to the problem, is not sufficient, not standardized, and not being appropriately utilized. More and better data needs to be collected, shared, and put to work in the creation of solutions.  Our recommendation: create a data consortium that would specifically focus on increasing public access to high value datasets generated by, and for the use of, those who are looking to find ways to end hunger in America.  Create a centralized repository for data, create standards for how hunger is measured - and what metrics should be used to determine the impact of different efforts - and, most importantly, actively push that data out so all organizations working on the issue of hunger (or any related conversation) can be part of the same conversation.
  • Hunger Think Tank: Federal government agencies and nonprofit organizations, as well as individuals and communities nationwide are already leading innovative programs designed to end hunger in America – but the efforts are not sufficiently coordinated.  A hunger think tank would be responsible for centralizing and focusing efforts to address hunger in America, at all levels, to allow for the best and most effective approaches to be shared, and utilized by all organizations, and for new, innovative, and more effective solutions to be developed.  A clearinghouse of sorts. An incubator for promising ideas. A hunger think tank would help to increase awareness of solutions that are being pursued (not just the need for the issue to be addressed), expand access and strengthen advocacy efforts (by pro-actively creating partnerships and connections between groups that otherwise wouldn’t know to work together) – especially in ways that smaller community-based groups would benefit from, and would be able to marshal the collective energy and capacity of people from across the nation to develop new approaches to this issue that no single organization could do on its own.  We don’t need more one-off efforts, or groups deciding who to work with based on their own individual interests.  We need a group that can create the collisions between different approaches to solving hunger that we know will spark the truly innovative and effective efforts to flourish.
  • A Trained Army: Ending hunger in America will require a comprehensive and coordinated effort in local communities nationwide – sustained over time.  It is unlikely that any organization would be able to able to recruit, train, and sustain the involvement of volunteers in that way.  Additional help – along with training, tools, and other support – will be needed.  We now live in an age where distributed action, facilitated by networked technologies, is possible. But, self-organized actions won’t deliver the outcomes that are needed - to thrive, those types of 'movements’ need guidance and training. Rather than having lots of small efforts, loosely connected, we should build citizen army to battle hunger.  Better yet, we should enlist returning veterans, those already trained in how to build community and infrastructure, and committed to the idea of serving the nation, to help lead and manage efforts to combat hunger across the country. We need to work towards a single goal, drawing on a universal playbook - and put a trained army of citizens on the task if we want to succeed.

These are just some basic concepts - initially conceived of during the discussions that were held during the CauseLab, and refined over time through discussions, research, experimentation, and more.  They are a starting place for the Commission when beginning to discuss and craft their report. They provide pieces of a framework that will allow for truly innovative and disruptive ideas to emerge and thrive.  But, importantly, they reflect a different way of thinking about this challenge - one that hasn’t found its way into the heart of most efforts to solve hunger.

Beyond the ideas themselves… I hope the Commission can understand and embrace the need to do things differently.

Significant change is hard. The process can be difficult, loud, and messy.  Re-thinking everything - how we communicate, operate, engage, mobilize, measure, and even discuss/explain the issue of hunger, in hopes of significantly shifting the way we address this issue, will be very challenging. Not everyone recognizes the scope of the challenge or the need to approach the issue in a different way. Not every organization will feel comfortable shifting from their current way of doing things - which works well for the organization, but perhaps doesn’t have the desired impact on the issue as a whole. Some people don’t have the skills, the experience, or even the perspective to embrace this type of effort.  Others are entrenched in their beliefs, overly reliant on their past experiences, and unable to imagine an approach that isn’t based on existing, and arguably outdated methods or theories.  And some people are just plain afraid to take on the powerful forces that stand in the way of change.

The Commission was not created to summarize what we already know about the issue of hunger - that is big, and gnarly, that it impacts everyone in this country, that it complicated to solve, that there are great organizations doing great work, etc.  I will be disappointed if your final recommendations fail to acknowledge the failures of the hunger community to date in solving this problem, and issuing a challenge/invitation to find, create, and aggressively pursue more innovative and disruptive solutions to this significant problem. 

The Commission was created to tell Congress, and the American people, what it will take to solve hunger. I will know that the Commission has delivered something that has the potential to change the way we work to solve hunger if/when it makes people angry.  When you make people angry, its a sign that you are moving in the right direction, and a challenge to push more and try harder.  Big, hard to imagine, difficult to implement, expensive - not to mention unpopular or controversial - ideas by themselves aren’t solutions, but they are critical pieces to finding the answers and approaches that are needed if we are going to shift how we address hunger in America and succeed in this effort.  That is what I hope, and frankly expect, the Commission will deliver. 

I would be thrilled to have an opportunity to work with the members of the Commission to flesh out the ideas that were outlined above, to share more of what we learned from the WeCanEndThis project, to brainstorm new ideas, review existing plans, to add a voice from beyond the hunger community, to make introductions to smart people, or whatever would be helpful. 

Good luck… I can’t wait to see what you come up with. And thank you for your commitment and hard work.

- Brian Reich