The following is a conversation between Rev. David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. It has been at this since the early 1970s, and it’s had a profound impact in helping to change policies, programs, and conditions that allow hunger and poverty to exist. And here to tell us about this work, it’s a pleasure to have with us the Reverend David Beckmann, the President of Bread for the World, and the 2010 recipient of the World Food Prize.
Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Rev. David Beckmann: Thank you, Denver. Thanks for having me.
Denver: Tell us how this all got started. You’ve been at this for some 45 years now. What is the founding story of the organization?
Rev. David Beckmann: Well, the founder was Arthur Simon. He’s a Lutheran pastor whose brother was a senator. At the time he started it, he was a pastor in a really poor neighborhood in New York, so he was just seeing a lot of people who needed help. But his brother was a member of Congress and was saying, “It doesn’t do much good for churches to pass resolutions about what we ought to do. You need to organize people in the district to talk to their own members of Congress.” So that’s how it got started, and it became a national organization very quickly.
And really since the beginning, since 1974, it’s just remarkable that a network of well-meaning people across the country who are concerned about hunger, poverty, if they take time to contact their members of Congress, especially if it’s on specific things, if they know what’s going on in Congress… and they tell their member of Congress, “I want you to co-sponsor this bill. I want you to vote for this bill,” that’s very powerful. And to have people in New York, people in Idaho working together—
Denver: Pretty unusual, too.
Rev. David Beckmann: And it works. It works. And also, it’s Republicans and Democrats. We really are careful to work on issues. We think to win, typically, you need to have both Republicans and Democrats working together, and the faith basis of Bread for the World actually helps us get in the door on both sides and get them to work together.
…hunger is a fixable problem.
Denver: How do we define hunger, David? How many people in the world go to bed hungry every night on a regular basis?
Rev. David Beckmann: Typically, we define it differently for the poorest countries in the world and the USA.
In the USA, we have hunger, but the typical pattern is just millions of families run out of food before the end of the month – the wage check runs out, their SNAP benefits run out. So, the last five days of the month in lots of homes, in lots of months – maybe five days out, mom stops eating pretty much, and then the last three days, there’s no food for the kids.
So that kind of intermittent hunger and moderate malnutrition is characteristic of millions of people in our own country. It’s completely avoidable, and it does damage, especially to the children… and the health of the adults, too. It results in obesity, mental illness, very expensive to our healthcare system.
Denver: No doubt about it.
Rev. David Beckmann: Globally, there are 800 million people who are chronically without enough calories to make their bodies work right. So those people who are hungry in the most literal sense, the kids die in large numbers, and adults are often … they can’t work. They don’t have as much energy as they ought to have to be fully functional. It causes huge suffering, of course, but it’s also just a terrible waste of human capacity.
What’s maybe most important about hunger is that this is a fixable problem. In fact, the world and our country have reduced hunger and poverty in recent decades. It is a fixable problem. We know a lot about how to do it. Mainly, what we need is more – I’m a preacher, so there’s a theological term for it – we need more “organized give-a-damn.”
Everybody’s concerned about kids who need help, but we need to translate that mainly into US public policies.
Denver: I’ve never heard that technical term.
Rev. David Beckmann: Everybody’s concerned about kids who need help, but we need to translate that mainly into US public policies. The US government has played a role, a big role in the reductions in hunger and poverty that we’ve achieved, and we’ve got to get them to do more. It’s not just assistance, but also policies that help people get a good job and provide for their own families.
Denver: You know, we hear this term used – hidden hunger. What does that refer to?
Rev. David Beckmann: A lot of hunger is actually hidden. In our country, people think hungry – well, that must be homeless people. But every zip code has hunger. It’s really remarkable. Even in very affluent zip codes, the people who cut the hedges, those kids are often hungry. So, it’s everywhere.
Also, a lot of people bounce in and out. So there is a core of people who are intergenerationally hungry and poor, but then maybe half the people who are hungry at any one time, two or three months later, they’re going to be able to get a new job or they’re out of it. And then there are just a lot of people in our country who are just making it, so then if somebody gets sick, if mom and dad fight, and dad moves out … those kinds of things happen in higher income families, too. But when they happen, when you’re just on the edge, then those families go hungry.
So that’s hidden hunger. Usually, the sort of technical thing is just people who are missing certain nutrients. So maybe their bellies are full, but they’re not getting enough vitamin A. They’re not getting … and that’s a very large group of people.
Denver: Right. So they look okay if you see them, but they’re actually not getting the vitamins and nutrients, and therefore suffering because of that.
Rev. David Beckmann: Exactly. And that’s probably 2 billion people in the world.
…the key time is from conception to age two. That’s 1,000 days. The brain of a baby is being formed in that period. The bodies are being formed. So, if that baby lacks good nutrition, the body and brain do not form correctly.
Denver: You talked about children before. What is the impact of malnutrition on very young children, let’s say, from the time a woman gets pregnant to when the child turns two years old? What can happen?
Rev. David Beckmann: Denver, that’s a really good question, and it’s a smart question because that’s the key time – it’s from conception to age two. That’s 1,000 days. The brain of a baby is being formed in that period. The bodies are being formed. So, if that baby lacks good nutrition, the body and brain do not form correctly.
In low-income countries, if they do an MRA, you can see that there are holes in the brain tissue – the synapses have not formed. And once that happens, once that damage is done to a child, it is irreversible. So we really have learned that if you have limited dollars, focus on pregnant women and babies; that’s the most urgent, always. It’s true in our country too.
Denver: I was seeing that about 6 million children who will die before the age of five, 45% of those will die because of malnutrition. And that’s a startling statistic.
Rev. David Beckmann: And then it’s many more – many, many more – who don’t die, but they are stunted in their growth, their development of their body, and often, their brain. It’s the brain that kills me, that we’re letting – especially in our country. Why would we allow children who are going to be living in our country for the rest of their lives, why would we allow that to be that they don’t get enough good nutrition to let their brain develop?
Denver: It’s inconceivable, isn’t it?
Rev. David Beckmann: If you’re concerned about earning capacity of—we want these people to work. Well, one way to help the workforce be productive and be able to earn a living is to make sure the workforce gets enough nutrition when they’re six months old.
Denver: You know, David, we are a society, preoccupied with bad news, but there really has been some dramatic progress in reducing hunger and poverty. I know we have a long way to go, but tell us what kind of progress has been made over the last several decades.
Rev. David Beckmann: It’s absolutely just stunning. From about 1992 until today, global hunger has dropped dramatically. There were more than two billion people in the world in absolute poverty in 1990. We have pretty good numbers on that actually. That’s down from two billion to less than a billion – 700 million. So, it’s like about a third of what it was. Even though the global population is growing, the number of people in absolute poverty is roughly a third of what it was three decades ago.
Denver: And it’s actually less than 10% for the first time in human history.
Rev. David Beckmann: Exactly. So, again, I’m a preacher, so I think this is God. Honest to God. It’s like the Exodus of the Bible, but much, much bigger. This is an experience of, in my view, of our loving God on the move in our own time.
And then also in the US, if you look at it over a longer period of time from, say, ‘65 until today, the number of people in poverty in the US is about half of what it was. But in our country, almost all that progress was made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. What happened was we just decided as a country that we’ve got to do something about poverty. So, in the administrations of Johnson and Nixon, we set up poverty assistance programs like Medicaid, SNAP, WIC. Those programs have been under attack ever since, but over the years, as a country, we’ve decided to keep those programs in place and improve the impact of those programs. And even today, if we didn’t have the means-tested federal programs, we’d have twice the poverty we do have.
So that’s important for people to know that we know a lot about how to reduce poverty, not just to help an individual family. That’s important, of course. But we know that government policies can certainly assist people, provide good nutrition for babies, but the government policies can also make it easier for low-income workers to get a job that pays.
Denver: Well, you make the point that it is a very complicated issue. A lot of people look at hunger, and they think of food assistance. But you have to think of conflict; you have to think of poverty; you have to think of climate change. It’s a multifaceted issue when you really look at the breadth of all those.
Rev. David Beckmann: Right. But what’s not complicated is the need for organized give-a-damn. So then if there is organized give-a-damn to solve it, you can say to your member of Congress, “Solve this.” It helps to be specific, but then somebody else can go into all the complicated, technical stuff. What the citizen needs to do is say, “When I go to vote in 2020, I’m going to be voting for candidates who are going to help, provide help and opportunity for people at the bottom… in our country and around the world. This is important to me. Maybe I’ve been there; my sister’s been there. I can see this is something we ought to fix.”
…what the churches have been able to do, even in this year’s really toxic and divided political environment, that Offering of Letters has been able to recruit broad bipartisan support for continued leadership by our government in pushing toward the end of child malnutrition.
Denver: Well, your signature organized give-a-damn program is something called Offering of Letters. How did that get started? Tell us how that works.
Rev. David Beckmann: Well, it started way back in 1974 in New York City.
Denver: Right from the very onset then.
Rev. David Beckmann: A lady in the founder’s church here in a mixed-race poor church here in New York, she had the idea of, in addition to the offering of money: let’s take up an Offering of Letters to Congress. So that lady, her idea has taken off and now, hundreds of churches all over the country every year talk about some specific issue. This year, we’re really focused on what we can do to end global malnutrition – those babies that we were talking about – globally. And so, a lot of churches talk about that issue in church, help people understand it. This year, we’re focused on a Global Nutrition Resolution.
So those churches across the country, and then some people who get really into it, they’ve recruited 226 members of Congress from both parties as co-sponsors of the Global Nutrition Resolution. That’s now moved through the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It’s on the way to a vote on the floor of the House. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is from Idaho. Bread for the World organized a meeting of 100 constituents with him back home. So in that meeting, he committed to putting it on the agenda of the Foreign Relations Committee at their next meeting, so that it’s on its way to the floor of the Senate.
So what the churches have been able to do, even in this year’s really toxic and divided political environment, that Offering of Letters has been able to recruit broad bipartisan support for continued leadership by our government in pushing toward the end of child malnutrition.
About 10 years ago, we got new evidence – so we have new style, evidence-based ways of reducing child malnutrition among babies and pregnant women. And those programs have reduced the number of stunted children in the world by 15 million over the last 7 years.
Rev. David Beckmann: So we’ve got the argument, but it’s the Offering of Letters, people in every congressional district going to their member of Congress, that’s been able to build one-by-one strong bipartisan support.
Denver: And the brilliance of that program is that single issue, not this generic we-have-to-end-hunger, but really honing in and giving them something discreet that you’re asking them to do and that they can act on.
Rev. David Beckmann: And also that they can think about because then, maybe some years we do an issue where they think, “I don’t quite believe—I don’t agree with Bread for the World.” I mean, there’s nothing about food stamps in the Bible. So it’s not that we’re asking the church elders or somebody to take a position for everybody, but the church leadership is asking their people to think about this issue that seems to be really important to hungry people. And if you agree, then weigh in.
Denver: Having led this organization for nearly three decades, has politics changed in terms of the way you go about your work? Have your strategies and tactics had to be altered based on the current day environment?
Rev. David Beckmann: Sure. I think partisanship is much more severe. The Republican party has really moved to the right. I mean, I think that’s really what’s happened. So it’s harder for us now to work in a bipartisan way. We’re still doing it. The religious character of our organization helps us get indoors on both sides and helps us get the two parties to work together, but it’s tougher than it used to be.
I think also the rise of money in politics. There’s just too damn much money in politics. There’s a book by that name.
Denver: Yes. Probably a couple.
Rev. David Beckmann: I really don’t cuss very much, but it’s true. Just as our country has become more unequal in terms of money…. People who have a lot of money, big corporations can spend money … advocacy leverages big changes, so companies and wealthy people pay to influence the political process. So, the power of money in politics has made it tougher to win.
We do win. The fact that we really try to be decent to everybody… We’re not trying to zap anybody in Congress. And then we have the facts, and we’re representing hungry people for God’s sake, hungry kids often. So, being right – there’s real power in that. And if people from back home write or come in to see a member of Congress, and they’re asking him to help us reduce malnutrition among babies, typically, members of Congress are just delighted to have the visit. Because they’re getting pushed around by big donors, by corporate interests all the time, and to have the people… group of people from back home who really care about making the world a better place –
Denver: That’s something that they can embrace. It’s not quite as controversial as some of the other issues that they have.
Rev. David Beckmann: Yes. And it’s conservative and liberal people that they often are really glad to have folks from home.
Denver: You’ve used the word “we” a lot of times, and it is important to remember that this is a collective effort, and a key component of that was something that the organization started called the Alliance to End Hunger. Tell us about that.
Rev. David Beckmann: Fifteen years ago – Bread for the World is a Christian organization. We’re not exclusively Christian, but we do… some of our materials talk about Jesus, which actually has been very powerful in lots of ways, but it’s also a limitation. Because if we’re going to end hunger—that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to virtually end hunger—
Denver: You’re not mitigating here. You want to wipe it out.
Rev. David Beckmann: We want to – or virtually. There’ll be some people who have drug addiction or something, and they don’t eat, but we think we can virtually end hunger, both in our country and around the world. But to get that done, it can’t just be church people.
So, we organized the Alliance to End Hunger to help diverse organizations – Jewish and Muslim groups, secular organizations, corporations, universities, hospitals – to help a broad array of organizations that understand that hunger is important to them, get involved in changing public opinion and changing politics.
So we’ve been able to recruit very powerful allies – a network of hospitals and healthcare providers who realize that if a lot of our people are going home, and there’s not enough food in the refrigerator, they’ll be back to the hospital. So, universities – there are about 200 universities who are part of Universities Fighting World Hunger Network. That was organized by a university – Auburn University – that’s part of the Alliance to End Hunger.
So that’s been a way of broadening. We still got a way to go on that. Obviously, we haven’t ended hunger, but the Alliance to End Hunger has been a powerful way to get into more places.
Denver: And you’re a Lutheran minister, and ending hunger has always been a central issue for the Lutherans, hasn’t it?
Rev. David Beckmann: Well, it has. I think it’s a central issue for a lot of people.
Denver: Yes, but you’ve been very …
Rev. David Beckmann: I don’t know why that is exactly. But I think it is actually…the Lutherans have been consistent on it. I think it’s partly because there are a lot of Lutherans in the Upper Midwest – rural people, farm people. So they see the productivity of American agriculture and think, “Why?”
Denver: Why is this happening?
Rev. David Beckmann: Yes. Why? And so, a lot of just decent people who are connected to farming and agriculture want to act. Theologically, I think that Lutherans emphasize God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and there’s a lot of power in that. Actually, a Harvard sociologist did a study of American religion and how it translates into civic and charitable life, and he found that people who experienced God as a loving presence in their lives are more likely to support foreign aid and food aid. Now, they don’t necessarily go to church, and sometimes people who go to church – it depends on where you go to church, but …
Denver: That’s a whole different story here –
Rev. David Beckmann: That’s a different story, yes.
Denver: Talk a little bit about the corporate culture at Bread for the World. What do you do to shape and influence it? What aspect do you think of it is working there that is most distinctive and special?
Rev. David Beckmann: We have a very active network of people who are not employed by Bread for the World, but the network of people who give time, give themselves… in some cases, a lot of time to organize Bread for the World activity in their churches and communities across the country, they’re very much part of our culture. About a million people now take action with us sometime. A lot of those people now, we connect with digitally.
So that’s part of our corporate culture. We realize that our distinctive power is that all of those people are active, involved, pay attention, and use their influence with their friends and their members of Congress. I think that’s distinctive.
It’s also remarkably diverse. Both our network and our staff are multiracial, bipartisan. Another thing I think is really wonderful – they’re well-meaning people. They’re people who are not only charitable, but who kind of go that second mile of saying, “It’s not just put a nickel on the drum. How do we change it? How do we change things so that people are not going to be in need?” The kind of people who work as staff on that kind of structural change, or who give money to support that kind of structural change, I’m struck that I get to meet a lot of wonderful people.
Denver: And actually, people like that are generally good people to work with because it isn’t just towards the cause itself, it’s also towards each other. It’s a generous and kind culture, and that is always a special place to show up every morning, isn’t it?
Rev. David Beckmann: Yes. I mean, we’ve got our issues, too, but …
Denver: I would hope so.
Rev. David Beckmann: But we do a good job with interns. When interns come in, they get a good experience. They don’t just send them to the copy machine, and that’s because the people are nice. They’re trying to do the right thing.
Denver: Let me close with this, David. We’ve talked a lot about what you do, but what is the impact of what you do been on you? What have you personally witnessed? What have you personally seen with some of the things that you’ve started in Congress… and maybe how it’s even come back to your own family?
Rev. David Beckmann: Well, I have two adopted sons, and one thing that really hit me was when my older son searched for his birth mother…He contacted her online, and within a week, she had joined Bread for the World. And I thought, “What’s this?” We didn’t even know her yet. She looked me up, Googled me, so she knew about Bread for the World, and she saw that Bread for the World has, over the years, strongly supported Women, Infants and Children nutrition program in this country (WIC). When she got pregnant way back, she didn’t have enough money, and so she needed the WIC program to provide good nutrition for the baby.
At that time, the WIC program, in fact, was under attack, and Bread for the World was campaigning to protect the WIC program – Bread for the World members back then. So my son is a really bright, extraordinarily energetic person, but I realized that if it hadn’t been for the work of Bread for the World advocates when he was in utero, he might not be as bright as he is. And so, it really is true that I’m one of the many beneficiaries of the advocacy of Bread for the World people over many years.
Denver: That’s incredible, isn’t it?
Rev. David Beckmann: It really is. It really is.
…maybe the most important thing about Bread is that we win over and over again. We make changes that provide help and opportunity to millions, sometimes tens of millions of hungry people.
Denver: Well, Reverend David Beckmann, the President of Bread for the World, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Now, what can listeners do to help support this work? What do you want them to do? What’s their call to action?
Rev. David Beckmann: Well, the door in is bread.org. Pretty easy. We need money to keep this thing afloat, so feel free to contribute. But then we also need people who are willing to think about how to reduce hunger and poverty, how to reduce it, how to move toward the end of hunger, and then use their influence with their families… and then especially their members of Congress.
We help people become effective advocates with their members of Congress. It’s not enough to click, but how to move from clicking on an email to being an effective advocate with your member of Congress. It is very powerful. And maybe the most important thing about Bread is that we win over and over again. We make changes that provide help and opportunity to millions, sometimes tens of millions of hungry people.
Denver: Well, this is the kind of winning we can all embrace. Thanks, David. It was great to have you on the show.
Rev. David Beckmann: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you for doing it.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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