Will Work for Food
Teams Up Locally to Play Music and Fight Hunger
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Actor Jeff Bridges is a popular movie star, a talented musician, and a longtime Livingston area resident. He also does what he can to keep others from going hungry.
Bridges, whose recent films include Crazy Heart and True Grit, has lived in the Livingston area for over 30 years. It was at Chico Hot Springs, in 1974, that he met Susan, now his wife of over 30 years. “I consider Livingston home, really,” he told the Pioneer, “along with Santa Barbara where I also live.” And home being where the heart is, Bridges scheduled his band, Jeff Bridges and the Abiders, for a late July benefit concert to help the local food bank (the Livingston Food Pantry), an idea suggested to him by Livingston resident Donna Greenberg.
The concert, held at The Dulcie Theatre, quickly sold out, and at the same time drew attention to hunger in Montana. Bridges worked with Livingston Food Pantry director Michael McCormick to spread the word, and a new “Livingston model” for bringing awareness to and alleviating childhood hunger may take shape in other Montana communities. Jeff Bridges' dedication to helping kids get fed, though, is nothing new.
Thirty years ago, Bridges told us, he became aware of the problem of world hunger, and over time he has used his celebrity to lend a hand. “What could I do that was more than just a gesture, that would fit with my life and career,” he asked himself. “…I formed an organization called the End Hunger Network…I do a lot of talking to the media, like I am with you right now. I've got a certain degree of fame, which gives me a high profile, so that people listen to what I say.”
“The End Hunger Network (founded with brother Beau),” Bridges told us, “did a long list of things—we wrote all the copy for [the benefit concert] Live Aid, and produced a film called Hidden in America, made quite a few years ago, but just as relevant today—you know, the working poor, trying to hold down three jobs and put a roof over your family's head, deal with the medical expenses, and put food on the table. It's tough, especially with the economy the way it is.”
“About 20 years ago,” Bridges said, “we shifted our focus to hunger here in America, because it started to show up again. We had these programs that were keeping hunger at bay, but the programs were not being funded, and now hunger is running rampant in our country to the tune of 17 million kids struggling with food insecurity…not knowing where their next meal is coming from.”
Bridges is also the national spokesperson for Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry, an organization that has the goal of ending childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2015, but the organization has not yet taken root in Montana. By building awareness, drawing media and political attention to “food insecurity” in the state, Bridges hopes to help No Kid Hungry and the State of Montana get together and form a working partnership.
Share Our Strength, Bridges said, works with governors, mayors, and food banks to identify obstacles to people having access to food that is available, and he said each state, town and city has unique needs. “New York City,” he said, “is different than Livingston, Montana—they have different challenges.” He said the Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry method is to “identify where the hang ups are, to surgically go in and correct those, and make sure people have access to food.”
Working with food bank managers like Michael McCormick, No Kid Hungry and Jeff Bridges make sure people know that programs and facilities are available to help feed people in need. “A lot of people don't even know that the meals are available,” Bridges said, “and a lot of times there are roadblocks, sometimes transportation, or forms to fill out, or just the shame aspect of it.”
Bridges talked about $1 billion in national funding, set aside for states, that is not being used. “A lot of governors and mayors don't even know about it, surprisingly enough,” he said. “Also, communities need to know about it, and take action, take part in these programs, and encourage them to be up and running.”
Live in Livingston
“I've lived in Livingston for 30 years,” Bridges said. “I met my wife at Chico (in 1974, during the filming of Rancho Deluxe). Livingston is very dear to my heart—I consider it my home, really, and I've got this album coming out in August (titled Jeff Bridges, produced by T Bone Burnett), and when I was coming up here, one of my dear friends, Donna Greenberg, suggested that I do a concert for the Livingston food bank. I thought that was a great idea. Another great plus is that I get to play in the Dulcie Theater at the Shane Lalani Arts Center.”
Currently, Montana is not one of the states participating in the No Kids Hungry program, and Bridges told us he has wanted to change that. “I started working with Michael McCormick, head of the Livingston Food Pantry,” he said, “and I was so impressed with what he's done with the food bank.” Bridges put McCormick in touch with Bill Shore, founder and executive director of Share Our Strength. “We're going to do everything we can,” Bridges said, “to try to make Livingston the model for how town's in Montana can deal with hunger, and then try to get the whole state into the No Kid Hungry program. That's what I'm aiming for.”
In the area, as a musician (now a famous one as a result of his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart), Bridges hangs out with notable locals like Mike Devine, Ronnie Taylor, of the Taylor Brothers, and Costas, who Bridges described as a dear friend. He spoke of Livingston as a “talent-rich place,” and of Paradise Valley's Bill Payne, a founding member of Little Feat who has worked with the greats of the music business, including Jackson Browne and Pink Floyd. Bridges said he had not yet performed with Payne, but that “they had been trying to hook up,” and he spoke of past and possible future performances at Mike Devine's Main Street Shows. “I imagine,” Bridges said, “that I'll be playing [locally] every once in a while.”
Most of Bridges’ conversation, though, centered on the need to get children fed, a need that becomes more acute on weekends and over the summer, because when kids are out of school, Michael McCormick told the Pioneer, they miss the meals that would otherwise be served, and so supplemental help is needed.
Nationally, for example, Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry allocated over $1.6 million in 35 different states this summer to help hungry kids. Locally, McCormick said, over half the elementary students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals during the school year, and for many kids it's their primary source of food. “We do a program during the school year, in Livingston, providing supplemental weekend food that these kids can take home, so that on Monday they don't come back to school hungry.”
That program continues over the summer with a free lunch program in Sacajawea Park, where school-aged children are offered lunch Monday through Friday.
McCormick said Livingston has seen double-digit growth in demand for emergency food month after month since the recession began, and that local food programs ought to be structured to meet specific needs of communities as opposed to being developed as one-size-fits-all models, and so he and Bridges see Livingston's groundwork in dealing with hunger as a model that can be adapted to other Montana communities' unique needs.
When asked what others might do, people wanting to help the cause of hunger, Bridges suggested visiting nokidhungry.org and taking the No Kid Hungry pledge, which states that no child in America should go hungry. Bridges, and McCormick, also encourage donations of food and financial support to the Livingston Food Pantry, where interested individuals may, as well, donate their time as volunteers. Bridges also said, in a more personal way, that he would like to “encourage people to look inside themselves and see how they might do something toward ending hunger here in Park County, in a way that fits with their life—with what they do naturally.”
And, when asked, he talked about his own motivation for helping people in need, on a personal level. He said, as an actor, he places himself in another's shoes (...that's my job, he told us), but he believes that capacity is not exclusive to actors but a natural quality in human beings, one that offers hope—and Jeff Bridges told us that understanding the plight of another human being is what drives him to work for food.
The Livingston Food Pantry welcomes financial donations, food donations, and volunteers (112 N. M Street, Livingston, Montana, 59047).
Pat Hill contributed to this article.