Thursday, August 29, 2019

Nation’s Illiteracy Woes Won’t Be Solved by Government Alone

Award-winning children’s author David Ezra Stein hosted a special story time at the
 Queens Public Library in July to celebrate the launch of Soar with Reading's 2019 season.
Previously published on Triple Pundit. 

Labor Day weekend is right around the corner. Most kids are already back in school. And once again, teachers are battling the effects of the dreaded summer slide—a term used to describe the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year.

One study using data from over half a million students in grades 2 through 9 found that students, on average, lost between 25 and 30 percent of their school-year learning over the summer. 

Studies also show that the loss is far greater for lower-income students than middle-class students. One reason for the gap is the lack of access to educational resources over the summer months. Academic researchers refer to this as the “faucet theory.” According to the theory, the “resource faucet” is on for all students during the school year, but over the summer, the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

According to Susan Neuman, professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University’s Steinhardt School, many low-income students live in “book deserts.” In research she conducted in a low-income community in Washington, D.C., for example, Neuman found that, given the low access to books in the neighborhood, 830 children would have to share one book in order to read.  

“Book deserts seriously constrain young children’s opportunity to learn and have an unfortunate consequence in their school readiness,” Neuman says. 

Houston, we have a problem . . . a big one

The summer slide is just the tip of the iceberg. We are facing a literacy crisis in the United States. 

According to recent research, more than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years or drop out, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research

Other studies confirm the widening literacy gap, which authors say will lead to the perpetuation of poverty and a resultant expanding unskilled workforce in the coming years. 

This challenge is too big for any one sector 

The U.S. Department of Education is scrambling to address the growing crisis, but it is just too big. Increasingly, businesses are realizing the immensity of the challenge in their communities and the potential impact it could have on their own sustainability. They also realize that their employees and customers are looking to them to do something. 

“There is an expectation today that companies will respond and help,” says Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility for JetBlue Airways and architect of the company’s award-winning Soar with Reading program. “It’s incumbent upon companies to help. Everyone has to get involved to move the needle on social change.” 

Through its Soar with Reading program, JetBlue has been tackling the issue of book availability in underserved communities since 2015. Using a creative approach, the program provides free children’s books through vending machines in a different city every summer.  

For selection in the program, a city must be one where JetBlue flies and where a book desert exists. To date, JetBlue has brought Soar with Reading to Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale and, this year, New York City.

Once a new city is selected, Gibbs’ corporate responsibility team works with local community leaders, educators and community organizations to identify neighborhoods that would benefit most from the program and high-traffic areas where kids and families visit often, such as community centers. 

Vending machines are set up from July through September and restocked every two weeks with new titles that feature a wide array of age-appropriate books that also reflect the distinct languages and cultures of the community.

“We work long and hard to ensure we select books that represent the neighborhoods we go into,” Gibbs explains. For example, when Soar with Reading took up residence in San Francisco, Gibbs and her team ensured there were books available in Mandarin. 

JetBlue’s vending machines include historical, biographical, and narrative books designed to attract young audiences and keep them reading. 

Kids and parents line up for new books 

“We know people rely so much on their phones and tablets, even in low-income neighborhoods,” Gibbs says. “But what is consistent across all socioeconomic platforms we’ve measured is that kids like to feel the book they are reading, and they like to build their own home library.”

JetBlue is able to track the ZIP codes of people who use the machines, and the company found that some families travel from miles away. Gibbs says some even place the dates on their calendar of when a new cycle of books will arrive.

She gives the example of a grandmother in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC who brought her granddaughter to the vending machine whenever there was a new shipment. She became known as the “book lady” because she would bring books back for all the other children in her housing complex. 

At the Soar with Reading launch event this past July in Brooklyn, actress Aisha Hinds was talking with some young girls, Gibbs recalls. “One of the girls said to Aisha, ‘These books are big! How are we supposed to read them?’ Aisha told them that she wanted them to form a book club and to make sure they all were reading together.

“This little girl’s eye lit up and she said, ‘That is exactly what we will do.’” Gibbs says, with a satisfied laugh, that the girl and her friends went through every age-appropriate title in the vending machine that summer and kept up their book club after the program ended. 

Chance for JetBlue employees to give back 

Soar with Reading also offers JetBlue crewmembers from across the country a chance to get involved in their local communities. They can volunteer their time at vending machines to help kids select books, or, if there is no vending machine in their city, they can order titles to be included in the vending machines through JetBlue and host book readings at local schools, libraries or even at their own airport.  

Closing the gap 

To date, JetBlue and its community partners have donated and distributed more than $3.5 million worth of books through the Soar with Reading program, and they don’t plan to stop anytime soon given that their research shows the program is having an impact.

“Studies have shown that owning 25 books or more has a sizable effect on achievement, with each additional increment of books, such as 10 or more, improving achievement,” says Neuman, who is also a member of the Soar with Reading Advisory Board. “This program allows children to own books and combat the knowledge loss that so often accompanies summer.”

Some may say that Soar with Reading is just one program in one city each year. But what if other companies also stepped forward to support similar programs in the cities where they operate?

As Neuman told Forbes last year, “Changes like this in the environment can strongly influence changes in behavior, and along with generous and powerful policy solutions, we can begin to close the achievement gap for low-income children."

Image credits: Nicole Honeywill/Unsplash and JetBlue

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

These Companies Are Now Responding to the IPCC Report Findings

Originally published in Triple Pundit.
By now, you’ve likely read about the Special Report on Climate Change and Landreleased earlier this month by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report highlights how the rise in global temperatures, linked to increasing pressures on fertile soil, risks jeopardizing food security for the Planet. That is planet with a capital P, meaning everyone.

And everyone—governments, companies, farmers and consumers—has a responsibility to help mitigate the pending crisis headed toward us, according to the report. 

If you didn’t read the full 1,200-page report, here is a recap: More than 100 scientists looked at 7,000 studies to understand how human impacts on land are causing greenhouse gas emissions, how climate change is affecting our ability to produce food, and how changing what we do on farms and in forests can help fight climate change. They found that farming, forestry and other human land use is responsible for 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and that keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius will only happen if we reduce those emissions.

Do more using less land—and do so, sustainability

Like any good U.N. report, this one is not shy to offer recommendations. At the top of the authors’ list: Countries must commit to sustainable land use to help limit greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late.

The authors put out a strong call for greater use of new, more efficient, and sustainable agriculture technologies and methods capable of producing more food with less land, particularly food that is resistant to extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding. 

They called on the global community—with a keen eye toward food producers and retailers—to reduce food waste.They urged greater efforts to protect ecosystems that are already rich in carbon, like mangrove forests, rainforests and peatlands, and for more efforts at reforestation. And they confirmed the recommendations we have heard from numerous others: Western countries must do more to replace, or at least partially shift, their high-meat diets with plant-based alternatives. 

“This report really underscores the importance and urgency of lands,” Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies at the nonprofit Conservation International, told Fast Company. “What we do to protect and restore land this generation will affect whether our children, and those they share the planet with, are going to suffer. . . . We’re making some progress on managing lands and climate change generally, but we’re making incremental progress against an exponential problem."

But wait, there is hope in the IPCC report

Before you click to the next article, wait! It’s not all doom and gloom. While the scale of change must accelerate quickly, there are more and more examples every day of businesses working with nonprofit organizations and researchers to address the challenges identified in the report. We offer a few examples that will hopefully spawn many more in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Reducing food waste

According to ReFEDa collaboration of businesses, nonprofits and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste—every year, American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that is never eaten. More than 50 million tons of it are typically sent to landfills. Ten million tons are discarded or left unharvested on farms. Altogether, food waste consumes 18 percent of cropland and 21 percent of landfill volume.

Where to start? Why not with one of the world’s largest retailers: Walmart. It has long been aiming for zero waste—including food waste—in its operations in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2019, Walmart Canada formally committed to achieve zero food waste by 2025.

The retailer’s strategy includes strengthening its forecasting and ordering tools and training employees on how to better care for food and manage it at the end of shelf life. Walmart has also created a customized field-to-store network for highly perishable products, which is designed to reduce days in transit. In 2019, Walmart says it had 90 million fewer wasted units in its fresh departments in the United States as compared to the year prior.

Walmart is also jumping on the “ugly” fruit and veggie bandwagon at its Asda stores in the United Kingdom where, in 2019, it sold more than a million boxes of ugly produce, avoiding 1.5 million pounds of waste.

If food is no longer edible, Walmart says it will work to convert it to animal feed, compost or energy.

Using technology to improve crop yields

Illumina, a San Diego-based company that provides  sequencing and array-based solutions for analysis of genetic variation and function, is working to address the challenge of feeding the global population. Through the use of its microarray and next-generation sequencing technologies, it is helping farmers identify the genetic markers linked to desirable traits, informing cultivation.

The company has started the Illumina Greater Good Sequencing Grant Program to help researchers around the world. The annual grand prize winner receives free access to Illumina sequencing data. One past winner, the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa–International Livestock Research Institute Hub, is using Illumina sequencing to better understand and combat two viruses responsible for infecting cassava crops throughout Africa.

Developing delicious plant-based foods

Let’s start with what might be the most contentious topic out of the report for some: moving toward a plant-based diet.

Scientists generally agree that approximately 33 percent of arable land is now devoted to crops that will be used for animal feed. On top of that statistic, farmed animals produce half of the world’s methane emissions. And livestock such as cattle and lamb are particularly inefficient, because these animals need lots of space to graze, and in nations such as Brazil, that land is often space that used to be covered with forests.

“Shifting to a plant-based diet would be a significant catalyst for combating climate change," said Andre Laperrière, executive director of Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), in an emailed statement to TriplePundit. 

One of the best examples that showcases this shift is Impossible Foods, which, for more than a decade, has been finding ways to turn plant-based ingredients into meat alternatives. This upstart's secret: Heme, an essential molecule found in every living plant and animal, which is what makes meat taste like meat

According to the company, one Impossible Burger (instead of a burger made from beef) uses 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water and produces 89 percent fewer GHG emissions.

And it’s not just burgers. Impossible Foods’ plant-based options, in addition to other brands that make similar products, can be used to replace meat on your chili cheese fries, in your meat-less meatballs, in your tacos and your empanadas  . . . the list goes on and on.

Supply Chain Sustainability: M&Ms without deforestation

In another example: We all love chocolate. But churning all those cacao pods into sweets is wreaking havoc on the world’s forests. As part of its Cocoa for Generations plan, Mars says it is creating a deforestation-free global cocoa supply chain for such iconic sweets as M&Ms, Twix and Snickers.

To date, the global food giant claims it has GPS-mapped 24 percent of its global cocoa supply chain to the farm level. Mars also claims to have made significant progress in tracing the cocoa it sources to a country of origin via its first-tier direct suppliers, second-tier farmer groups and, finally, to the farmer level. By 2025, Mars says it plans to map all of the countries where it sources cocoa, including Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana (where nearly 65 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown), as well as Indonesia, Brazil, Cameroon and Ecuador.

Mars insists that it is also advancing partnerships with cocoa suppliers, governments and civil society partners who share a common goal of preserving forests for the future, and are committed to accelerate progress by working only with cocoa suppliers who can be accountable to meet the milestones laid out in the company’s long-term cocoa plan.

Teaching new farming skills to take on climate change

Climate change is also threatening one of the world’s most beloved beverages: tea. To that end, Unilever, the world’s biggest tea packer with brands such as Lipton, has committed to sustainably source 100 percent of its tea, including loose tea, by 2020.

A key partner in its efforts for more than a decade has been the Rainforest Alliance, with whom it worked to develop local indicators for sustainable tea production in Kenya. In 2007, Kericho, Unilever’s largest tea estate in Kenya, was the first tea farm to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. Certification means that farmers and companies have met the standards for efficient farm management, soil erosion, waste production and wildlife habitat protection, among others.

Today, Rainforest Alliance-certified tea accounts for around 20 percent of the world’s tea production, but Unilever says it is working to increase that by supporting suppliers in 14 countries in Africa and Asia to train smallholder farmers so they can achieve farm certification. One of the company’s longest-running partnerships is with the Kenya Tea Development Agency and the Sustainable Trade Initiative through which it has enabled 86,000 farmersincluding around 42,000 women—to train at Farmer Field Schools for guidance on how to share best agricultural practices, increase yields, improve quality, and improve their health and nutrition.

The best is yet to come—and it must

Of course, there are many other examples of companies and organizations doing their part to mitigate their impact on climate change that could be added to those above. And there must be more, together with concerted government action.

As Aparajita Bhalla of the Rainforest Alliance expressed in a statement emailed to TriplePundit: “The work has already started. We need to keep moving toward a more sustainable agriculture system and reap the climate benefits such a system would provide.”

Image credit: Jamie Street/Unsplash