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Local business leaders get a taste of how the other half lives in Durham.

By Hyun Namkoong

CEOs and business leaders of Triangle companies such as AT&T and FHI 360 spent the night tossing and turning as they slept on top of flattened cardboard boxes in downtown Durham last night.

The local business leaders came together to participate in the United Way’s third annual CEO Sleep Out to raise awareness to childhood hunger in the Greater Triangle area and in honor of 9/11.

A pile of cardboard became sleeping mats for Triangle-area CEOs on Thursday evening. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Community leaders and researchers in education and health fields talked to the CEOs about the impact of childhood hunger on overall health, well-being and academic performance.

“There are 100,000 kids who suffer from food insecurity in the four counties that are served by this United Way,” said Maureen Berner, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor in the School of Government.

“Food insecurity is the nice policy code word for not being able to systematically plan for food being on your table the next day.”

Berner reminded executives who usually get treated to $100 dinners that more than half of all students in grades K-12 in the state qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2012-13 school year, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The sluggish economy and a state Department of Health and Human Services backlog this past winter of 30,000 eligible people who were unable to receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly known as food stamps) has concentrated the efforts of several nonprofit organizations on childhood hunger and food insecurity.

Thinking of health, broadly

The evening began with a panel of community leaders from local health departments and several nonprofit organizations including the Salvation Army of Wake County and Partnership for Children of Johnston County.

Panelists emphasized the impact of hunger on a child’s ability to study and succeed in school.

“Childhood hunger is one of the root causes of a lot of issues,” said Colleen Bridger, director of the Orange County Health Department.

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government faculty member Maureen Berner talked to the CEOs about hunger. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

“Often times people ask me if I could invest money in only one issue, where would I invest that money? And they’re always shocked when the public-health director says education,” Bridger said.

Health research has shown that educational attainment is the most reliable predictor of future health, more than access to health care, family history or income.

The increasing focus on health and social determinants such as poverty and education have changed the way organizations partner together to create solutions to social issues.

Christian Barfield from the Durham County Department of Public Health spoke at length about the importance of positive parenting and how parenting relates to health. Barfield coordinates the county’s Triple P initiative, a parenting program that provides parents with guidance on raising children.

“Hunger and parenting are public-health issues,” Barfield said.

“If the parents are less stressed, the kids are less stressed.”

Moving away from fundraising

Not only did the CEOs sleep on the ground last night, but they also didn’t get to eat until morning.

Melanie Davis-Jones, senior vice president for marketing at United Way, said that it’s good for the CEOs to have the unsettling sense of what it’s like to sleep on the ground and hear the train go by.

But she said her organization wants to do more than fund raise through the event. She said the United Way was looking to engage people and build partnerships among businesses, nonprofit organizations and public-health departments.

“Business leaders can activate and mobilize the movement,” Davis-Jones said.

Kevin Trapani, president and CEO of the Redwoods Group, said that having business leaders come together is important because they know how to engage the community and they have access to financial, intellectual and social resources.

“Most of us are the kind of people who work on solutions, and most of the problems we work on day to day aren’t as important as the problems we’ve heard about tonight,” he said.

Showcasing solutions

In an effort to provide solutions and not Band-Aids to social ills, the United Way organized a 100,000 Kids Hungry No More Social Innovation Challenge. The challenge allows groups to present innovative ideas to solve childhood hunger.  The winner of the challenge receives $50,000 to implement their idea.

The four finalists of the challenge presented their solution proposals to reduce childhood hunger to the CEOs

N.C. State students Megan McNeil and Brentley Hovey speak to Virginia Park of United Way, Christian Barfield from Durham Public Health and FHI 360 CEO Patrick Fine. Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

Finalists came from the Durham Public School System, the fundraising group Pennies 4 Progress, Grocers on Wheels and Urban Ministries of Wake County.

The finalists presented strategies such as delivering fresh food in trucks to food deserts or new ways of feeding children in the classroom.

Urban Ministries of Wake County proposed streamlining food distribution and cutting out the middleman to make fresh food more readily available.

Pennies 4 Progress is headed by N.C. State University students and the premise is to allow customers to round up the payments from their retail bills to donate to local schools.

Chris Pfitzer, vice president of marketing and communications for United Way, said that the winner of the $50,000 seed money will be announced next week.

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.