Feeding the hungry creatively

November 03, 1995|By Mike Littwin

PHOTO OPS don't come much better than this. Tipper Gore, the vice president's photo-friendly wife, is feeding soup to Head Start kids in East Baltimore after reading them a book called "Stone Soup," a children's classic about a community coming together to feed the hungry.

You don't get by in the helping biz without photo ops. Loosened heart strings, after all, lead directly to loosened change purses.

Gore says all the right things (nothing, for instance, about rock lyrics). In an interview, she takes the theme of the book and applies it to Congress, the people who don't seem as eager to feed the hungry anymore.

"Lots of people in this Congress," she says, "have hearts of stone."

Billy Shore is there, too. He's not the star of the event. He's the director. You've never heard of him, and that's all right with Shore, so long as you get the message.

A long-time political broker (he worked for Gary Hart and Bob Kerrey) who discovered a better way to live his life, Shore founded Save Our Strength (SOS), an anti-hunger organization. SOS doesn't do canned-goods drives or give out turkeys on Thanksgiving, although it does fund food banks. What's different about SOS is that it enlists writers and chefs and artists to its cause.

"There are ways to contribute other than writing a check," Shore says. "Creative people can offer their talents and also their time. And they can get something back, too."

Gore is reading as part of a project called Writers Harvest, in which writers read their works as a way of raising money to combat hunger.

In the age of television uber alles, it's heartening that somebody thinks that literacy still matters.

Elmore Leonard, Richard Russo, Gloria Naylor, Annie Proulx, Terry McMillan and many others are doing their own photo ops. American Express underwrites the project, meaning all the money actually goes to the source.

This is what Shore does. He thought up something called Taste of the Nation and talked hundreds of restaurateurs into holding wine and food tastings, to benefit SOS. That may be fairly standard thinking. But SOS also produces fiction anthologies and gets writers -- say Anne Tyler or William Styron -- to contribute stories. Artists offer up paintings for sale -- art for more than art's sake.

The funny thing is, these are just the kinds of projects that the heart-of-stone Congress says it wants to see happen -- charities creatively picking up the slack for what it says government can no longer afford to do.

"That's disingenuous," Shore says as he watches Gore read. "The Republicans say charities must do more at the same time they want to reduce funding that goes to charities."

Gore is speaking at the Door, which is a thriving helping place run by the ex-football star, Joe Ehrmann.

"We're here," Gore says, "to put a human face on hunger. Twenty million Americans are hungry. Twelve million are kids -- at least 12 million. That's shocking, in 1995, in America.

"Look at these faces [she's pointing to 4-year-old faces that would melt Rush Limbaugh's heart]. A community can't turn its back on that child. Maybe the Congress can turn its back, but a community can't. Until there's a new Congress, we all have to do more."

If she seems passionate on the topic, well, that's what brought her to work with Billy Shore, who wants to rethink the entire business of fighting hunger and has a book out -- "Revolution of the Heart" -- explaining his vision.

Shore says, for instance, that it probably doesn't matter whether it's a Democratic welfare bill or a Republican welfare bill that comes out of Congress. "Either way," he says, "it may not make much difference to these kids. We have to think in more creative ways.

"I think people who work for nonprofits are the greatest people in the world. But they're not always the most efficient. I like to use the story of the truck at the bottom of the hill. You can ask a lot of people to help you push the truck up the hill. Or you can get an engine for the truck."

Creating self-generating revenue, he says, is that engine.

At this point, Shore says, nonprofits are fighting over what he calls "leftover wealth." He wants to push the idea of nonprofits that work like profit-making companies. He cites Paul Newman's line of Newman's Own products as the best example.

"His company isn't a nonprofit," Shore says. "He sells his products, pays his taxes and uses the proceeds for causes that are important to him."

Meanwhile, the reading goes on. The story is told. The moral is clear.

"It's a great story for children to hear," Gore says of "Stone Soup."

"Actually, these days, it may be a more important story for adults."

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