2016-11-10 / Front Page

‘Nothing Works If People Are Hungry’

By Betsy Sherman Walker


According to MLK Director Marilyn Warren, food insecurity is a chronic problem on Aquidneck Island, which is why the support of the community is so crucial. In 2015, more than 2,500 Newport County clients looked to the Center for help from their Hunger Services programs. The Food Pantry distributed more than 223,000 meals. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) According to MLK Director Marilyn Warren, food insecurity is a chronic problem on Aquidneck Island, which is why the support of the community is so crucial. In 2015, more than 2,500 Newport County clients looked to the Center for help from their Hunger Services programs. The Food Pantry distributed more than 223,000 meals. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Whether he likes it or not, Peter Kiernan is the new face of hunger in Newport.

On Thursday, Nov. 3, in response to a food shortage crisis at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, it was announced that Kiernan and his wife, Eaddo, both longtime supporters of the center, had created the Kiernan Challenge Match. If island residents can collectively raise $25,000 on behalf of the MLK food pantry, the Kiernans have promised to match that amount.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 9, $18,700 had already been brought in toward the goal.

The statistics are daunting. According to the Hunger Services Program at the MLK Center, in 2012 it served 143,000 meals from the food pantry. In 2013, it served 179,000. In 2015 that number jumped again to 223,617.


Peter and Eaddo Kiernan in front of the MLK Center's Food 2 Friends van, which they donated to the Center in 2013. The Kiernans "are so down to earth and approachable," says MLK Executive Director Marilyn Warren, "with a deep understanding of the issue of hunger and a genuine desire to combat hunger in their midst." (Photo by Kate Whitney Lucey/courtesy of the MLK Center) Peter and Eaddo Kiernan in front of the MLK Center's Food 2 Friends van, which they donated to the Center in 2013. The Kiernans "are so down to earth and approachable," says MLK Executive Director Marilyn Warren, "with a deep understanding of the issue of hunger and a genuine desire to combat hunger in their midst." (Photo by Kate Whitney Lucey/courtesy of the MLK Center) This is not the first time the Kiernans have stepped up to the plate at the center. According to Executive Director Marilyn Warren, “They were instrumental in updating our kitchen, [and] have invested in our hunger services over the years when donations were lean.” Warren added that in 2013, “They helped us start the Food 2 Friends delivery service to our homebound and hungry neighbors.”

“Hunger and I as enemies go back a long way,” Kiernan explained recently in a phone conversation while he was on a morning run in Connecticut. “I’ve been fighting it in New York for 30 plus years and in Newport for more than 20.”

Kiernan’s perspective as a philanthropist is the new normal. In good economic times, he said, a “healthy stock market used to trickle down. But now, no bridge intersects any longer between the Dow Jones and the cycle of poverty. The stock market goes up, and it no longer means things will be better. It no longer works.”

And in places like New York and Newport, he added, “It’s too easy to see past it.”

“Seven years ago,” he said, “I went to the food pantry at the Martin Luther King Center. There was a woman there, very nicely dressed, with her baby.” He began making small talk. “I said something like, ‘I’m really pleased you’re here.’ And she looked right at me and said, ‘Mister, I’ve got nowhere else to go.’

“It literally rocked me,” he continued. “Two miles away from where we live,” here was someone struggling to feed her child. “That woman,” he added, “made me a full-time citizen.”

Two miles away, for Kiernan, is his Newport home – Hammersmith Farm, the waterfront estate with Kennedy connections, which he purchased in 1999 and spent two years renovating back into a private home. A former partner at Goldman Sachs, Kiernan and his wife belong to a community of activist philanthropists – well-heeled supporters capable of raising large amounts of money that is then reinvested for the cause. Past chair and president of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, he also sits on the board of the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City, a fundraising powerhouse (a May 2015 gala raised $101 million) that attempts to alleviate problems caused by poverty in New York City.

At the end of September, it was Kiernan who stepped forward with a gift of $200,000 to the City of Newport to expedite the purchase of a fire and rescue boat.

The Kiernans’ partnering with the MLK Center was no mistake. When he invests in a cause, he envisions a return. “I look at the MLK as a place I trust. And I like their imaginative [solutions].”

“As a businessman,” Warren said, “Peter understands the market, economics, and has a long history of philanthropy. He and Eaddo believe deeply in the power of community.”

“If you’re going to come to Newport you have to be a part of the solution,” Kiernan said. “I didn’t used to do challenge grants. But you’ve got to get people to be part of the solution. It’s no different from a barn raising in the old days.”

Newport is a community of “barn raisers.” The Kiernans are not the first face of invested donors, nor will they be the last. At the end of September, after the center announced that it faced the prospect of empty shelves, a local family quickly offered a pledge challenge promising to match donations, up to $1,000, if 10 people gave $100 each. According to MLK Development Director Alyson Novick, in less than 24 hours, dozens responded. At the same time, a group of area businesses coordinated “100 for $100,” asking colleagues to pledge at least $100 each. More than $15,000 was raised.

“We have working families, men and women working, [who are dealing with] relevant inflation – food, housing, health care, the cost of medicine, and tuition.” Food insecurity numbers are growing, Kiernan says, because the circumstances of food access are changing. “Another more powerful thing,” he pointed out, is that the Internet, he believes, has changed everything. “The grocery business is now run with such incredible efficiency, from distribution to technological access to the system,” he said. “There used to be more sources where food banks could go.”

“It’s not mean-spirited,” he said. “But what has happened is that at food pantries and other service organizations, there is less food access in the pipeline.” Translation: There is less food to buy cheaply.

Also having an impact on food bank resources is that funds are drying up. In the past year the center has lost some grants, and there have been federal and state legislative cutbacks to factor in. And of all the social services offered, he says, “work better if people have full security and good nutrition.

“Nothing works,” he says, “if people are hungry.”

Warren is grateful. “Peter affects change in many quiet ways, without public fanfare,” she says. “But he’s also come to understand the power of challenging members of a community to come together for a purpose greater than themselves.”

According to Kiernan, there is no set deadline for the challenge. “I want to spend this $25,000,” he said. “If it takes a month, if it goes into Christmas, if it goes into 2017,” that’s OK.

“The problem isn’t going to go away. I just want to encourage everyone to join in.”

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