I had the good pleasure recently to speak with Bill Ayres, the executive director of WhyHunger.  (This Bill Ayres is not to be confused with the controversial college professor/1960’s anti-war radical.)

Our primary topic was this year’s radio Hungerthon, an annual multi-channel event that provides the bulk of the funding for his organization’s aid programs. Some of the music world’s biggest stars will be on hand in support of the event, including Yoko Ono, Carlos Santana and Bruce Springsteen. 

SATURDAY:

Richard Neer, 6-10 a.m. on WFAN (660 AM).
Pete Fornatale, 4-8 p.m. on WFUV (90.7 FM).
Cousin Bruce Morrow, 6 p.m.-midnight on Sirius.
Joe Causi, 7 p.m.-midnight, on WCBS-FM (101.1).

SUNDAY:

Public service on WAXQ (104.3 FM), WXRK (92.3 FM), WFAN and WRXP (101.9
FM).
Dashow on WAXQ, 8-10 a.m.

TUESDAY:

WINS (1010 AM), WCBS-AM (880), WRXP, 5 a.m.-10 p.m.
WFAN, 6 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
WCBS-FM: 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
WAXQ: 5:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sirius XM (multiple channels).

Also supporting Hungerthon: WHTZ, WLTW, WKTU, WWPR, WPLJ, WQHT, WRKS, WABC,
Last.fm, Kweevak.com and rocklandworldradio.com.

ABOUT BILL AYRES

Bill Ayres. the Executive Directer of WhyHunger, founded the organization (then called World Hunger Year), in 1975 along with the late  singer/songwriter Harry Chapin.

Since then Ayres,  who also hosts two radio shows on WPLJ (95.5 FM in NYC), has devoted his life to promoting innovative initiatives aimed at getting essential food and services to those in need. Those efforts have included the creation of the New York Hunger Hotline in New York City and the Center for Food Action in New Jersey, as well as support of the National Food Hotline.

Under Ayres leadership, WhyHunger has helped found the National Association of Hunger Organizations and the National Jobs for All Coalition.  He is also a board member of Long Island Cares, a Long Island food bank and is the author of All You Need Is Love, published by Simon & Schuster. 

My Interview with Bill Ayres


So tell me about WhyHunger and a bit about yourself.

We started the organization in 1975. So we been around for
35 years. I was doing a lot of this kind of work before that but it’s
been my major work for a very long time now.

I also am the host of a couple of radio shows each week on
WPLJ in New York.

One of them is a call-in show on a different topic each
week. We have some guests on and then the other 
is where I interview people who are doing something good in the
community. It’s called Community Connections. 
And that’s a half hour show. The other one is an hour and a half, live.

I’ve been doing the live show 35 years and I’ve been doing
the other show for about 10 years.

How’d you become involved with Harry Chapin and the group?

I was doing a radio show for the ABC Radio Network called
“On This Rock” and it was a show about rock music and I interviewed rock and
roll performers.  And, one day, Tom
Chapin, Harry’s brother, came on.

He did a agreat show and said “You know, you
should talk to my brother. He loves to talk. 
And I always said that was the understatement of the century.  Harry liked to talk and so I had him on my
show and he said “Wow. That was a great interview. 

Afterwards he said “You asked good questions.  Why don’t you come to my house for dinner?”
So I did. And, you know, we both lived out on Long Island. So after a couple of
these dinners, I said why don’t we do a – this would have been like 1973–why
don’t we do another kind of Bangladesh-type concert and make this one for the
Saharian region of Africa – the part just under the Sarara Desert. 

There was a major famine going on there – all
across Africa .  So, yeah, so we did. We
went to the UN. We had all kinds of good connections but it never happened and,
meantime, we’re doing a lot of research and studying  and we decided that we were gonna spend the
rest of our lives  working on
hunger.  And realizing that an event
would not solve the problem so we made a life-long commitment. 

But we didn’t know, of course, at the time
that Harry wouldn’t live that much longer. 
So, that’s how we got started.

What happened next?

And then we decided to form the organization because he was
doing all these concerts and he and I were giving talks in high schools and
colleges, churches and  all kinds of
places.  (But) we realized we would get people
all excited and then we’d leave.  It
didn’t make a lot of sense.  So we
decided we needed an organization to follow up and so that’s how it started in
’75.

And then, you know, it grew a little bit. Harry did almost
all the funding. Eighty percent of the money came from him. And then when he died, of
course, we fell off a cliff. 

So, I took
over in 1983. I’d been on the board. I was the chair of the board  and, you know, we’ve kept growing and we’re
very fortunate. We’ve had some wonderful partners.  Kenny Rogers helped us for a long time. Bruce
Springsteen has helped us for more than 20 years.  We have a partnership with the Hard Rock
Café.  And we also have been doing this
Hungerthon.

Harry and I did the first one in 1975. We went on WNEW-FM. That was a
great station.  It was THE experimental
rock and roll station in the seventies and so we went there and they said they
would do this Hungerthon with us and we would just take over the station for a
whole day – 24 hours — and do it.  Then
we did them around the country – in San Francisco and Detroit and Philadelphia,
and Dallas, Washington. All over the place.

And then after Harry died we didn’t do them again until 1985 when we picked up. And we’ve done them ever since.

We’re on all of the CBS
stations and we’re on about 17 stations all together and Sirius Satellite Radio
as well. And it’s our major fundraiser. It helps us to keep going and do all
the good work that we do. If we didn’t have the Hungerthon we would not have
made it this far.

How has the recession affected you?

Well, that’s interesting. The last two years  we’ve been flat. So I’m hoping that this year
we’re not going to be flat, we’re going to go up.

It’s kind of like the Perfect Bad Storm –  your needs go up but your resources go down.

That’s exactly right. The need has gone up dramatically and,
you know, we certainly don’t have all the resources that we need. 

How does WhyHunger work?

We’re not a direct feeding operation.  We connect people through the hotline  to emergency food and to all the government
feeding programs.  And that’s a big
job.  But our niche is
really community-based organizations. We work with 84 or 85 hundred community
based organizations in America and a growing number (though nowhere near as
big) throughout the world.

And we try to connect them to resources.  All these people are working very hard.
They’re some of the best people you’d ever want to meet in your life. They
dedicate they’re live to this. They don’t have money, they don’t have the
resources, they’re all overworked.  So
what we try to do is connect them to is resources. It might be the media, it might
be government or businesses,

We connect individuals through the National Hunger Hotline. We work with community based
organizations  because they’re the ones
that are on the ground.  They’re the ones
that are meeting people every day and they don’t have enough resources to do it
properly. So we try to help them to get connected.

We have a program called Artists Against Hunger and Poverty
and Bruce Springsteen has been our biggest fundraiser for that, but there’s a
lot of other people now doing it, and every place he goes and the other artists
go we hook them up with a community-based organization wherever their tour is
going.  And (Bruce) lets them raise money
afterwards. He gives them money. He lets them collect food and he also might
give people “meet and greet” tickets. That kind of thing (has) raised close to
ten million dollars over the years for (our) organizations
C

What can ordinary people do?

One of the things they can do is to listen to the
Hungerthon.  It will be on Saturday on  WFAN from 6 AM to 10 AM in the
morning  and then on SiriusXM Radio from
6 to 12 at night with Cousin Brucie.  

And then on Tuesday (Nov. 23), we start at five in the morning and we go
till ten at night.  We’re on CBS 880, a news station, 1010 WINS, the other
news station, WFAN.  We’re also on a
whole bunch of Sirius Satellite Radio stations that day, (as well as) Hot
97, KISS, WRXT. We’re also on the Clear Channel stations – Q-101. We’re
on a number of other stations.

What will people hear when they tune in?

Well, they’ll  hear
the regular format of the station but from time to time  they’ll hear somebody – in the case of WCBS
FM it might be the disc jockey but it also could be me,  Or the talk show host or the news person  And we’ll be talking about hunger and poverty
– getting people some (information about) things that they can do. 
Also asking people to make donations.

Who else is helping out?

One of our partners in all this is Yoko Ono. Her deal is that she’s a partner with us and
with the Hard Rock Café in the Imagine Campaign. And, for the past three years
now, we’ve been raising money all over the world .

The Hard Rock Café is
selling little bracelets. And every dollar that we raise goes to the community-based organizations.  And the idea there
is people go into a Hard Rock Café and they buy one of these things for a
dollar and it all adds up.

So we were able to raise last year I think about $400,000.
And we dividedthat up through organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. 
But they have to be organizations that are not just feeding people.  If you just give them food
they’re gonna come back tomorrow and next week, you know?  So we help them to find programs that are
promoting self reliance – teaching kids to grow food, giving kids an eduation
that (helps) their families. So, that’s what we do.

We’re trying to help them to get skills and talents and
resources in Asia, Africa and Latin America so they can grow their own food or
get a job in a place that’s gonna pay them a living wage so they can actually
take care of themselves.

So, you’re focused on self reliance.

But we do believe in government programs. We think they’re
absolutely essential but, ultimately, what we believe in is self reliance. We
want people to get back on their feet again.

So, the government program is a means – not an end?

Exactly.

What’s the Benefit Bank?

The Benefit Bank is something that’s relatively new. It’s
not something we created but we’re partnering with the folks who created it.

The
Benefit Bank is operating big time in Ohio. You oughtta take a look at that
website
. It’s truly amazing. They’ve brought in close to $350 million into the
pockets of poor people. And I received a note today from one of our
partners saying North Carolina and South Carolina are moving even faster than
Ohio did at the beginning.

And we’re in a few other states too but not as successfully
yet.  But the whole idea of the Benefit
Bank is (that) you walk into a non-profit organization. It could be a church. It could
be a hunger organization., a job training organization or a temple.

Wherever it
is, somebody’s there with a computer that has special software for the
Benefit Bank and within a half hour they will tell you all of  the federal grants and state programs that
you’re eligible for.  Not only that but
they can sign you up and even send electronic imaging of  the proper papers into the (appropriate government office).

 So, it’s an amazing program. I think there must be about
3500 or 4000 trained people in Ohio who are trained to help people to get the
money and it’s very, very exciting.  So,
we’d like to see that around the whole country. 

Are you concerned about fraud?

Oh, sure. You’re always gonna have that.

But, for example, with the SNAP program – there are no food
stamps anymore. They’re all gone.  And
that has reduced  error and also fraud
enormously  and it’s also reduced the
shame. You know, people used to have to go in and show those little coupons.
But now they walk in and it’s an EBT card – same as you or I. And there’s a lot less fraud.

There are some people who cheat. Absolutely. But it’s very
tiny.  The program is very, very
successful.

What would you like people to know about Hunger in America
today and in the world?

Well, let’s take America. There shouldn’t be any hunger in
America because we’re so rich here in terms of resources and we grow a lot of
food.  The problem is not that there’s
not enough food. We’ve got plenty  of
food. We waste enough food to feed all the hungry people in America many times
over.

When you say Hunger are your talking about starvation?

No, we’re not. That’s in Asia, Africa and Latin America. You
do see it here but it’s rare. 

What you
do see is a couple of things.  One is
malnourishment,  where kids aren’t getting
enough calories or they’re getting the wrong kind of calories. They’re not
getting protein, they’re not getting enough fruits and vegetables and so we’ve
got a campaign going to work on that as well, so that people can be eating a
better quality of food.

There are two problems. One is that
the cheapest food is often the food that’s the worst for you. It’s very high in
fat, sugar and, you know, it doesn’t have enough nutrients in it and it
produces obesity, diabetes, heart disease, all of those other kinds of things.

And there are higher incidents of all of those diseases in
poor people than there are in everybody else. 
I mean we have too much obesity in this country overall but its most
prevalent with poor people.

The rich have better food.

Exactly.  They have
more choices. We’re working now in two places that we call “food deserts.” That’s a term that’s crept into our language and it simply means that you can’t
get fresh fruits and vegetables  and
sometimes dairy. So you wind up with convenience stores that
might have a banana or milk but they don’t have much else in the way of healthy
food. And you end up with gas stations and with fast food restaurants and, in
some places, you wind up with nothing.

What are you doing about these “food deserts”?

We’re working for example in two areas of the country – in
the Mississippi Delta and Southeastern Arizona and they’re definitely food
deserts.  You may have to travel 30 or 40 miles to find a grocery store.  So,
what we’re trying to do there is to help those folks.  And, of course, God help you if you don’t
have a car, then you’re really in trouble. 

So, what we’re trying to do is to help the folks there to learn to grow
their own food and also to bring in farmer’s markets, community-supported
agriculture, farm to school programs  to
improve the quality of food in the schools 
and to help people to have access to better foods. So the backyard
gardens,  all those kinds of things.

How about rooftop gardens?

Rooftop gardens are great as well. Those are more urban
though.  You don’t find them so much out
in the sticks but rooftop gardens are great.

Do you find food deserts in urban areas?

Yes.  Exactly, you’re
absolutely right.  We got ’em right here
in New York City – parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, even a little bit in parts of
Northern Manhattan.  But  a lot in the Bronx, a lot in Brooklyn  and parts of Quuens. And that means for a
mile or two there are no stores, no supermarkets or anything like that. 

And it means, again, if you don’t have a car,
it becomes a burden.  You can get on a
subway and go somewhere and find food, and people do it, but then you gotta lug
it home. It discourages people.

It short circuits desire to get good food because it so much
trouble to get it.

Exactly.  And a lot of
the people who are trying to do this are working two jobs and they don’t have the time to do it.  So, the fast food
restaurants, of course, do very well in these places.

Do you work with fast food restaurants?

No. Although there is a movement to try and improve the
quality of food offered by fast food restaurants. We’re certainly supportive of
that but that’s not our connection.

What we do is to work with community gardeners and farmer’s
markets  and rooftop gardens, backyard
gardens,  all that kinda stuff. And we try
to work to get grocery stores into neighborhoods and to improve the quality of
the food in the bodegas. 

There’s a
movement now that’s been going on for awhile 
to get low-fat milk into bodegas and to get carrots into bodegas. The New York City Health Department is trying to promote that with a
subsidized program to try to help the bodegas to expand their variety of milk.

This goes on and on. There are so many different
possibilities here.

A lot of unemployed people are seeing their benefits run out. How has that impacted your work?

Yes, yes. A lot of those people are calling us up on the
hotline. There’s a lot of guys calling us up who never called before, (including) families
of veterans.  Desperate people. So you
got a major problem.

(About) 49 million hungry people are in America, 17 million are
children. One out of five kids in America grows up in poverty . One out of
seven people in America is poor. I mean that just tells the story right there.

And right now it’s not getting better.  So, you’re right. All of these organizations have more
pressure on them to serve people  and
less resources to do it.

Are you making it through?

We’ve been able to survive. Right now, it’s before the
Hungerthon, so we’re down to our last 
dollar. But I think we’ll do okay on the Hungerthon. It’s been a little
scary  but we have some good prospects
and very good partners who help us.  But
we don’t have much money right now.

So the Hungerthon is coming along just in time?

Yeah it comes along just in time. You know, it saves us
every year and it has, well, since 1985.

You’re Catholic. How important a role does your faith play in your work?

My whole
motivation for being involved in this is really to follow the Scriptures
.

Have Churches been supportive?

Churches have been very supportive.  Churches and synagogues have been very, very
supportive.

Final thoughts?

The number to call for radio stations on the day of Hungerthon is
1-800-5-HUNGRY. The website is
Hungerthon.org. (Go there and you’ll) see a large array of auction items –. music
items like signed guitars, sports items and other things.

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