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Share Our Strength's Co-Founder Finds It Takes More Than Food to Fight Hunger

Today in the spotlight on notable Americans who've made a difference in how we think, live and act: a creative crusader against hunger. Bill Shore is co-founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, Share Our Strength, also known as S.O.S. In twenty-one years, Share Our Strength has raised more than $200 million for hunger relief -- without taking a penny from governments or foundations.

Ironically for an anti-hunger organization, Share Our Strength has raised a big chunk of its money from events at which people eat and drink like royalty. At so-called "Taste of the Nation" gatherings in about sixty North American cities each year, guests sample the signature dishes of more than ten thousand chefs and restaurateurs. The chefs then turn over every penny that patrons pay for these feasts to the fight against hunger elsewhere.

"I can't think of anything more appropriate than we in the food industry giving back," says one of these premier cooks. Adds another, "There's no better feeling than seeing a smile on a kid. That's what makes us come back again and again and again."

All this is the inspiration of "Billy" Shore, as his family, friends and staff all call him. "The chefs and restaurateurs helped us understand that what they really love to do is contribute in a way that is unique to them," Mr. Shore says. "You or I could write checks. You or I could donate our time to a soup kitchen and hand out trays. But not everybody can cook an elegant meal that raises a lot of money. I think the chefs understood that that was their unique value-added."

Fifty-two-year-old Bill Shore grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a middle-class Jewish household in which social responsibility was a thread of daily life. His father ran a U.S. congressman's local office, and his mother threw herself into political campaigns. "We took only one vacation my entire life," Bill Shore recalls. "And the only time I left Pittsburgh before I went to college was to come to Washington for the Vietnam march -- the moratorium in 1968. So that was the kind of family that we were!"

Bill Shore's younger sister, Debbie, was an activist as well. In 1984 she and he co-founded Share Our Strength, and she has worked alongside her brother ever since.

Bill Shore was working for U.S. Senator Gary Hart on Capitol Hill at the time. Day after day, he watched news reports of a horrifying Ethiopian famine that would eventually claim more than 200,000 victims. He says the shock of what he calls that "tsunami of hunger" struck at a turning point in his life:

"When I'd worked for Senator Hart, I'd processed everything from the point of view of, 'What should Senator Hart say about this?' and 'What would his reaction be?' and 'Should he issue a press release?' I realized I hadn't really thought for myself or felt for myself.

Mr. Shore took out a $2,000 loan and opened an office near the Capitol building. "Literally, every time the senators went to vote, I ran as fast as I could four blocks to this office," he says. "So I worked at Share Our Strength in twenty-minute bursts for the first two or three years."

The Shores envisioned Share Our Strength as a magnet for reliable, sustainable funding that they would funnel to deserving anti-hunger organizations at home and abroad. Billy Shore remembered a remark from Senator Hart that if he could find the right twenty-five people, they'd influence twenty-five friends, and so on. "When we started Share Our Strength, we thought about it very much the same way," he says. "We thought that if we could get twenty-five influencers in the food and the chef and the restaurant industry to be for us, that would have a ripple effect and bring a lot of other people to the cause."

Bill Shore says it's a paradox that in the world's richest nation, many children, especially, still go to bed hungry and malnourished. He says just slipping them food is not the answer. "You have to create the political will that says it's unacceptable to have, in the richest country on the earth, 35 million Americans that live below the poverty line, and unacceptable not to be actively engaged in helping others around the globe with our resources."

The co-founder of Share Our Strength is a husband, father of three -- including a 1-year-old -- and a prolific writer. He sends open letters to S.O.S. supporters from the places he visits, such as the Gulf Coast region that was ravaged by two hurricanes last summer. One of his books, called The Cathedral Within, reflects his awe of great church buildings. They're also a metaphor for his fight against hunger.

"If you go to the cathedral in Milan, Italy, which is the second-largest gothic cathedral in the world," he notes, "it was started in 1330 and finished in 1843. So it took 513 years to build. And when you stand there, you realize that everybody who worked on it could only know one thing for sure, and that was they wouldn't see their work finished in their lifetimes. They realized that they were part of a community of people larger than themselves. So that ethic of cathedral-building can be very valuable as we tackle tough social problems that we may not see finished in our lifetimes."

When Bill and Debbie Shore founded Share Our Strength, they thought they'd raise lots of money, give it to food banks, and that would be the end of hunger. Instead, Mr. Shore says, he came to realize that hunger is a symptom of much deeper problems of the poor. Quoting the writer Jonathan Kozol, he says he learned to pick battles that 'are important enough to matter, but small enough to win.'"

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here