SOS, NRA table differences, partner to help hungry

SOS, NRA table differences, partner to help hungry – Share Our Strength, National Restaurant Assn

Milford Prewitt

WASHINGTON — The budding relationship between Share Our Strength and the National Restaurant Association began bumpily when some SOS members criticized the NRA for its long opposition to legislation that could help the working poor.

The differences in outlook in marrying the altruism of the industry’s leading charitable movement with the pragmatism of the industry’s most powerful business association surfaced during SOS’ Eighth Annual Conference of Leaders.

In an impromptu Q-and-A at the end of a speech by NRA president and chief executive Herman Cain, SOS regional leaders pressed him to explain why the NRA has opposed minimum-wage increases, universal health care and other legislative efforts seemingly designed to help the working poor.

In a keynote promoting the need for SOS and the NRA to pool their forces, Cain generally was received warmly and drew a standing ovation from an attentive audience, many of whom were first-time listeners of Cain’s and who clearly were taken by his evangelical style of speechmaking and story-telling.

Cain’s presence and theme marked the first time that the NRA and SOS began a dialogue to chart ways the two groups can work together.

In a speech that drew parallels between the hunger problem SOS attacks and the entrepreneurial spirit the NRA supports, Cain said it was “long overdue” for the two groups to come together.

“SOS and the NRA have a lot in common,” Cain said. “There’s a natural relationship between us.”

But at the end of his address, some SOS members took Cain to task for the NRA’s past policy positions.

Guy Abelson, a veteran SOS leader from Province, R.I., had Cain return to the podium to explain the reasons behind the NRA’s resistance to the minimum wage.

In an ensuing verbal sparring match over what Abelson considered a “living wage” and what Cain referred to as a “starting wage,” the philosophical differences between the two groups over the minimum wage seemed unbridgeable.

Another member, Diane Johnson, Boston, told Cain that the NRA’s economic positions and legislative agenda undermine the very people SOS tries to help. But Cain countered that government policies as enacted in the field by bureaucrats pose more peril to the poor, and he urged SOS members to support the NRA in its efforts to eliminate policies that stymie the disadvantaged.

Moreover, Cain said he was willing to meet with SOS members in another forum where he could more fully elaborate about the NRA’s legislative views.

Billy Shore, the executive director and founder of SOS, said even though the NRA and SOS members have different political interests, there’s no reason the two groups can’t work together.

“This is a major breakthrough,” he said, referring to an alliance with the NRA. “There’s difference between us, no doubt. But together there’s no telling what we can do.

“They have 175,000 members. That’s a huge territory.” Despite the bumpy start, staff members from both organizations met immediately after Cain’s address in what is expected to be a series of meetings to develop concrete ways the two groups can aid one another. One idea that could be reviewed is the possibility of granting SOS free booth space at the National Restaurant Show and liaison officers between SOS chapters nationally and state affiliate associations of the NRA.

Almost 400 people, mostly SOS regional leaders and veteran supporters, attended the event at the Mayflower Hotel. The conference is a three-day strategy session, where SOS members discuss and review methods to advance the group’s mission while honoring those members and restaurant vendors whose activities have been commendable in the fight against hunger.

Along with Cain, the other big-name speaker at this year’s Conference of Leaders was General Colin L. Powell (ret.), chairman of America’s Promise — The Alliance for Youth.

Powell praised SOS and Shore, and he similarly expressed a desire to work closer with the organization.

SOS, taking literally its own motto that “it takes more than food to fight hunger,” announced a major shift in strategy at the conference in launching a new activity, Community Wealth Ventures.

CWV, which will be a for-profit adjunct of SOS, is designed to help community groups and charitable agencies discover assets and skills within their organizations and client groups that can be fashioned into money-making enterprises.

“We will never outspend hunger or outlegislate poverty,” Shore said. “But we can change people’s perceptions about their talents and skills and develop those soft and hard assets that can begin to create real wealth in communities.

“Actually there is more hunger today than there was when we got started 10 years ago. Community Wealth Ventures is about filling the gap between hunger and hopelessness by changing people’s attitudes to find that hidden strength that can bring real economic value to communities.”

By way of example, Shore pointed to the D.C. Central Kitchen, ostensibly a nonprofit food bank, which recently launched a for-profit catering program.

CWV, which will be headed as president by former American Express executive Karen Aidem, will seek $600,000 to $800,000 in debt equity for launching the organization. Thereafter, CWV will attempt to derive income, in the form of fees, from nonprofit foundations like the Ford Foundation, among others, that support community and charitable groups.

Shore likened CWV to an engineering and design firm that will look at an organization’s marketable assets and devise ways to produce revenues from its activities.

In other developments during the conference, veteran Portland, Ore., restaurateur and local SOS leader Amelia Hard won the group’s annual Humanitarian Award, the charity’s highest honor.

“It’s more than 300 people here who do what I do and could have gotten this award,” Hard said. “The infusion of humanity that goes into this group is just incredible, and when you see how proud people are about their work and the energy they pour into it, it’s enough to lift you off your feet.”

SOS, best known for its Taste of the Nation food samplings and wine tastings, has given more than $27 million to hunger relief agencies since its founding 10 years ago.

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