Actor Jeff Bridges praises state’s school meal programs during LR visit

LITTLE ROCK — Actor Jeff Bridges, spokesman for the No Kid Hungry campaign, said Monday he was inspired by a visit that morning to Stephens Elementary School in Little Rock, where he saw students participating in a breakfast program.

“It was so inspiring, so good, so terrific with the kids themselves to see how much they enjoyed … eating together, enjoyed learning about the different food groups,” Bridges said during a panel discussion on childhood hunger at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

The actor, known for movies such as “The Big Lebowski” and “True Grit,” said proper nutrition is one of the most important things to teach a child.

“Obesity is really the flip side of hunger,” he said. “A lot of that is due to training your palate to enjoy certain kinds of foods. If you get used to eating, you know, pizza pockets, the stuff that’s not really good for you, that’s what’s going to feel good to eat when you’re an adult.”

Bridges and others with the campaign praised Arkansas for increasing its summer feeding programs by 1.6 million meals.

“(That is) the single biggest increase in summer meals — bigger than California, Texas, New York, any other state,” said Billy Shore, CEO of Share Our Strength, the organization that created the No Hungry Kid campaign.

Shore said breakfast programs serve 55 percent of Arkansas students, which he said is higher than the national average.

Arkansas has the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation. About 19 percent of households and 28 percent of children in the state are unsure of the source of their next meal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shore said people are realizing that “we can’t have a strong America with weak kids.”

Also taking part in the panel discussion was Gov. Mike Beebe, who credited his wife, Ginger, with keeping him focused on the issue of childhood hunger.

“If the other governors would just take it one step at a time, it’s not an insurmountable problem,” he said.

Beebe also met Monday with a group of CEOs of various companies to discuss what the private sector can do about childhood hunger. Shore noted during the panel discussion that Arkansas’ meal programs receive a combination of state and private-sector support.

“It doesn’t always require legislation,” Shore said.

Bridges said he came away from his school visit with renewed enthusiasm.

“It was wonderful to be there at Stephens Elementary School. It made me feel like, ‘Oh, we’re not alone. We’ve got a lot of committed, excited people.’ That fueled my excitement so much,” he said.