- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may be able to draw a crowd, but theres nothing like Hollywood when it comes to inspiring children toward better nutrition.

Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, whose extensive movie resume includes “Tron,” “Seabiscuit,” “Iron Man” and “Crazy Heart,” joined Mr. McDonnell and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Tuesday to talk to students, staff and parents at Bancroft Elementary School in Arlington about a new campaign targeting childhood hunger in Virginia.

“Its great to be here with ‘the Dude,’ ” Mr. McDonnell said, referring to Mr. Bridges by his character’s name in “The Big Lebowski.” Mr. Bridges, who founded the End Hunger Network in 1983, has spent more than 25 years as a national spokesman for efforts to relieve childhood hunger.

The actor drew the most applause, although he spoke the least.

“If you guys are hungry this summer, what are you going to do if you need food?” he asked more than 100 students in the audience. They responded by shouting out the number “211” — which dials a hotline for parents to find the location of the nearest summer meals site.

The Virginia “No Kid Hungry” campaign aims to connect more low-income children to federal nutrition programs through public-private partnerships, where the Federation of Virginia Food Banks and other partners help alert families to free summer meals and after-school meals programs.

Nearly 12 percent of children and teens in Virginia dont have access to proper nutrition at home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Even though were the eighth-most-prosperous state in the country, we still have 218,000 kids still hungry,” said Mr. McDonnell, a Republican.

And of the children who ate a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, just 18 percent participated in Virginias summer meals program, according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. If participation grew to 40 percent, 80,000 children would be added to the program and the state would receive $5 million more from the federal government.

“Some of you are going to have a very busy future, and so you all need to make sure youre eating right,” Mr. McDonnell told the students.

The students laughed as the speakers interacted with the puppets that looked like broccoli, spinach, a carrot and a pea that introduced them. “Im surprised broccoli is here today, because I just had him for lunch,” Mr. Vilsack said.

As lawmakers look for ways to cut federal spending that has grown to unsustainable levels, nutrition assistance programs arent the place to do it, Mr. Vilsack told reporters. Every dollar that is invested in the governments Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program generates $1.80 in economic returns, he said.

He also said childhood nutrition programs assist economic competitiveness.

“If these youngsters are going to compete economically and be at the top of their game, they gotta be great learners,” he said. “They cant do that if theyre hungry.”

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