When Jeff Bridges says the number, you hear in his voice frustration, anger, and incomprehension at its sheer size.
"16.7 million American kids -- that's nearly one out of four kids in this country -- are at risk of not getting enough to eat," the Academy Award–winning actor says. "And one of the tragic elements is that it doesn't have to be that way."
The one thing you don't hear when he talks about the problem is resignation. Bridges is committed to bringing that number down to zero. Ending childhood hunger has been his goal -- even as the number of hungry kids has grown higher and higher -- for more than 25 years.
Jeff Bridges and the End Hunger Network
His interest began in the mid-1980s, when images of famine-tortured people in Ethiopia were waking people up to the horrors of starvation. Moved by what he saw on TV and in newspapers, Bridges attended a program sponsored by The Hunger Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that works to end hunger around the world.
"I got educated," says Bridges, 61. He also got involved.
"You have to look inside yourself and see what you are willing to do," he says. "I looked inside myself. And I said, I'm an entertainer, there's a place for that in this."
So, in 1983, Bridges helped found the End Hunger Network, endhunger.com, based in Fairfax, Va., which draws on celebrities and entertainment industry leaders to raise awareness about the issue. (Bridges' organization is not connected to a Houston organization with the same name.)
Over the years, the End Hunger Network has been involved in some of the highest-profile anti-hunger events, including 1985's Live Aid benefit concert, which was broadcast to 1.5 billion people worldwide and raised more than $100 million to aid Africa.
In 1996, the network co-produced Hidden in America, a made-for-TV movie about an out-of-work father trying to support his family. At first too proud to ask for help, he eventually applies for food stamps so he can feed his children. Beau Bridges, Jeff's older brother, played the lead, a part for which he received Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations.
The No Kid Hungry Campaign
In 2010, the End Hunger Network allied itself with the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Share Our Strength (www.strength.org) to support SOS's No Kid Hungry Campaign, a nationwide effort to end childhood hunger in the United States by 2015. In November, Bridges traveled to Washington, D.C., where he advocated for increased federal funding for school and summer meal programs for kids at the launch of the No Kid Hungry Campaign.
Speaking to a National Press Club audience, the actor said he's often asked why he has taken this cause to heart for so many years. He thinks it's an odd question. "It seems like the most natural thing in the world for me, really -- I was born in a very lucky bed. My folks were fortunate enough to be able to provide for their kids, as I'm fortunate enough to be able to provide for my three daughters.
"But I can imagine what it must be like, that feeling of failure and depression…if you are not able to afford to put food in front of your kids."
Jeff Bridges' Recent Movies
The actor's new role as spokesperson for the No Kid Hungry Campaign is one of several high-profile parts he's played in the past year. Last March, he won an Academy Award for his role as the washed-up country singer and songwriter Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Though he'd been nominated for an Oscar for four previous films, this was the first time he took home the golden statue. And in December, not one, but two big-budget Jeff Bridges films premiered.
In True Grit, a remake of the classic Western, Bridges reprises the role of Rooster Cogburn, an aging marshal who helps a young girl track down her father's killer. Bridges has some big boots to fill in this one: John Wayne earned an Oscar for the part in the 1969 original. For Tron: Legacy, Bridges trades the dusty Old West for a futuristic digital landscape. In this sequel to 1982's Tron, Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, a video game designer who has been trapped for years in a computer-generated world. Flynn is reunited with his son, Sam, and the two of them fight their way across the digital world from which both are desperate to escape.
While his two new movies are set in the past and the future, Bridges is focusing much of his starpower on the present, on kids who do not get enough to eat.
When Bridges first got involved in the cause, he concentrated on hunger overseas because "the U.S. had hunger pretty well handled," he says. "Then, all of the safety nets started to be underfunded. Now, we have homes that are food insecure, homes where people aren't sure where their next nutritional meal is coming from."
Hungry Children in America
In recent years, the recession has seen the numbers of hungry children swell. In 2009, more than 17 million households were at risk of not having enough food. That's up from nearly 12 million in 2007, and double the number in 2000, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
"To end hunger, there needs to be political will," Bridges insists. In particular, he proudly points to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed the Senate unanimously and the House 264–157 last year. President Barack Obama signed the bill just before Christmas. The new law will expand eligibility for free and reduced-price meals in schools as well as provide additional funding to make those meals healthier. It is the first time in 30 years that the federal government has increased spending on child nutrition efforts.
He has big hopes that President Obama will continue to exert enough leverage to make a real difference. "The president declared there would be an end to hunger by 2015 [during the 2008 presidential campaign]," says Bridges, who considers Barack Obama one of his heroes because of his stand against childhood hunger. "This is from a guy who gets it, someone who was raised on food stamps himself."
How Hunger Harms Kids
Hunger has consequences far beyond a rumbling stomach, especially for children, including:
Running on empty
Hunger has consequences far beyond a rumbling stomach, especially for children. Missing out on essential nutrients can stunt their physical development, their academic performance, and their social skills, says pediatrician Ivor Horn, MD, MPH, who sees many underfed kids at the Diana L. and Stephen A. Goldberg Center for Community Pediatric Health, part of Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Without a proper diet, she says, "They are not getting the foundation they need."
Not making the grade
"Waking up hungry, going to school hungry -- it makes it hard to focus, hard to concentrate," says Horn. Studies have linked hungry kids to lower math scores and a greater likelihood of repeating a grade compared with their better-fed classmates. "We know that hungry kids have poor performance."
Hunger affects more than just grades. Behavioral problems can often be tied to hunger too, says Horn. Aggression and anxiety, according to one study, are the most common consequences of going hungry. "We need to diagnose hunger as early as we diagnose ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and autism."
Few healthy choices
In poor communities, such as the one that Horn serves, supermarkets are largely absent. Instead, families have to rely on small corner stores, which are less likely to stock fresh produce and other nutritious foods. "A lot of my families do cook, but only what they can afford to buy. [They need] programs to provide healthy options."
Giving a kid a healthy meal can have profoundly beneficial effects, says Horn, and research backs her up. Math scores, one study found, shot up once kids in three inner-city schools (one in Philadelphia, two in Baltimore) started eating a school-provided breakfast, while their behavioral problems decreased.
Ending Childhood Hunger
One of the No Kid Hungry Campaign's primary goals is to ensure that children who don't get the nutrition they need at home have access to existing meal programs both during the school year and throughout the summer months. "There are programs in place that we know work," Bridges told his National Press Club listeners. "The problem isn't having enough programs in place. The problem is they are not reaching enough kids."
More than half of all children eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast did not get one in the 2008–2009 school year, FRAC reports. That's more than 10 million children.
If there is any silver lining to the current size of the problem, it's that it has grown too large to ignore, says FRAC president James Weill. "Ironically, it's helped by making clear what needs to be done," says Weill, who is eager to see the federal government commit the resources necessary to eliminate hunger.
"There's a huge battery of research that hunger hurts health, development, and the ability to do well in school," Weill says, adding, "If you are not willing to make sure everyone has enough to eat, you are courting some serious moral problems. It's just shameful."
To reach the 2015 goal, the No Kid Hungry Campaign will become 50 unique campaigns, one in each state. The group's plans include building partnerships that support and expand on local efforts to provide healthy food to kids; awarding grant money to organizations that share the campaign's goals; and teaching communities about nutrition and healthy eating.
"Right now, we're in the first phase of a very ambitious program to end childhood hunger," says Bill Shore, founder and executive director of Share Our Strength. "It's an issue that's big enough to matter but small enough to win."
Eating to Fill a Role
Bridges does not waver in his efforts to ensure that kids get enough good food to eat. His own diet, however, is often dictated by the parts he accepts.
"Playing different characters, I have to change my diet for each role," says Bridges. "In each role, I address the physical aspects and the emotional aspects of the character."
What happens when Bridges takes on a role like Crazy Heart's Bad Blake? "Pretty soon you start to swell," he says, thanks to Blake's steady diet of cheap bourbon and cigarettes.
Preparing for the part meant Bridges himself had to go to pot. He put on weight -- generous portions of ice cream helped -- and transformed himself into the cringe-worthy wreck that moviegoers saw onscreen.
The effort paid off. He won an Academy Award for his performance. But the hard work did not end when the cameras stopped rolling: Bridges had to shift gears and lose all that excess weight.
"It doesn't feel good to be overweight and out of shape, but when I'm playing a guy like Bad Blake or The Dude," Bridges says, "I'll turn my governor off." The Dude, of course, is the über slacker he played in 1998's The Big Lebowski, a cult classic comedy directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, known professionally as the Coen brothers.
Jeff Bridges' Approach to Healthy Living
When he is not playing a part that requires him to pile on the pounds, Bridges says he likes to watch what he eats. He wakes up to a shake that his wife of 33 years, Susan -- a stay-at-home mom to the couple's three daughters -- makes him each morning. It's a mix of spirulina, fruit, protein powder, a multivitamin, hemp hearts (shelled hemp seeds) and other nutrient-rich ingredients. Lunch is often a chopped salad with chicken or salmon.
Bridges says he likes to start the day by doing some stretching, but when asked whether he has a regular exercise regimen, he starts to sound a bit like The Dude.
"Push-ups. I do those," he says noncommittally after a moment's thought. "And, you know, Pilates-esque kinds of things. It really depends on what kind of shape I need to be in to play a character."
And while he might not know whether he'll be called on to be flabby or fit from one performance to the next, one thing is certain: Bridges has the longevity gene. His parents, both deceased, lived long lives. His father, the actor Lloyd Bridges, died in 1998 at the age of 85. His mother, Dorothy, also an actor, lived to 93. She passed away in early 2009.
Bridges' Buddhist Practice
Bridges also works at balancing physical health with the spiritual and mental aspects of his life. He says he's been drawn to spirituality since he was a kid, and though he doesn't identify himself with one particular religion, he does say that "Buddhism rings my bell." He has been meditating for about a decade.
"For years, I thought about meditation but never got around to it. Then, I finally did get around to it." Though he doesn't practice it as regularly as he would like, he values its ability to help him tune into himself and the world around him.
"It's amazing how simple it is, how effective it is," he says. In a videotaped discussion with his friend Bernie Glassman, a teacher of Zen Buddhism, Bridges says that when he meditates, "I enjoy life more…that basic stillness is so beneficial to my life, to my work."
And it's his work, he says, that enables him to connect so deeply with the fight to end hunger. When playing a part, he is able to feel what drives the character -- what disturbs him, what inspires him, and what hurts him. It's one reason the issue of hunger has been so close to Bridges' heart. He feels what other people feel.
"As an actor, I put myself in other people's shoes," Bridges says. "I'm a representative for the human condition, for people who are working, busting their asses, yet are unable to take care of health issues and keep a roof over their heads.
"It breaks my heart."