Consider the food bank, a staple on the menu of nonprofits in most communities. Food banks collect unwanted food from donors, including supermarkets, food manufacturers, individuals and the government, and then distribute it to poor people through food pantries and meal programs. Last year alone, food banks affiliated with the Feeding America network distributed more than 3.6 billion meals to people in need.
What’s not to like? A good deal, says Andrew Fisher, a long-time anti-poverty activist and writer.
Fisher’s new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, argues that “anti-hunger work has become big business and big business profits from anti-hunger efforts.”
The charitable food sector has snowballed out of control. It has grown from what was supposed to be a temporary stopgap into a seemingly permanent feature of our country’s landscape, in part because numerous entrenched interests backstop it. Food charity has turned into big business, and an integral part of the business strategy of many corporations.
This is a story of good intentions gone awry, with lessons for any nonprofit that finds itself torn between its donors and those it wants to serve. The results, in this case: Food banks advocate narrowly around hunger but often ignore broader issues of poverty, they offer their customers unhealthy food and, alongside the food industry, they oppose restrictions on what people can buy with SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits.
That said, by some metrics, the anti-hunger movement has been a big success. Soup kitchens have been around for centuries, but the food bank — a distribution point for donated food — was invented in 1967 by a devout Roman Catholic entrepreneur named John van Hengel, who later founded Second Harvest (now Feeding America) and spread the food banking idea around the U.S. and the world. Today, according to Fisher, there are more than 200 food banks and about 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens that distribute about $5 billion worth of food in America — “a tribute to the astonishing ingenuity and dedication of the American spirit,” he writes. Those are outputs.
In terms of outcomes, sadly, 42 million people still face hunger in the US, according to Feeding America.
One problem with the anti-hunger industry: By focusing on hunger–especially hungry children–the movement has depoliticized the problem of poverty. Dealing with poverty requires political action; hunger is a matter for charity. Sharon Thornberry of the Oregon Food Bank tells Fisher: “Feeding children is seductive and makes people feel warm, fuzzy and self-righteous. It is a great way to assuage guilt without making any real effort at change.” Look, for example, the home page of the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength.
Charitable appeals that showcase children attract individual and corporate donors alike. But Fisher says (and he’s right) that they also perpetuate the idea that some poor people, i.e., kids, are more deserving than others.
Meantime, the alliance between the anti-hunger movement and the food and beverage industry has helped shape what kind of help–SNAP benefits, rather than welfare checks– government provides to the poor. This may seems unremarkable but as Fisher writes: “The United States remains the only major nation with a program that supports the poor not through cash, but through transfers linked to its own agri-food industry.”
It’s hard to overstate the degree to which food banks depend on corporate support. Their boards frequently include business executives: Kroger has people on the boards of 32 food banks, Walmart on 31, Bank of American and Wells Fargo on 22, according to Fisher. (Wells Fargo, you may recall, recently admitted to opening about 2 million bank accounts and credit cards without the consent of their customers, taking advantage of poor and elderly people. Which shows you just how much it cares about the poor.)
Feeding America’s “Visionary Partners” include PepsiCo, General Mills, Food Lion, Albertson’s, ConAgra, Kroger, Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club and Publix. To qualify, each company donated either $4m in cash, 40 million pounds of food, or a combined total of $2m and 20 million pounds of food in 2015-2016. The food donations can be a sweet deal for the companies: Companies can deduct from their taxes the cost of the food, plus half the difference between the cost and the full fair market value, up to twice the cost of the item. They can thus offset some of their overhead and, quite possibly, send less wasted food to landfills, saving themselves more money.
No wonder food banks can’t be picky about what they accept and distribute. “Donors want free waste removal, convenience, a tax deduction and the halo effect that accompanies hunger relief efforts,” Fisher writes. They “do not want to be judged about the quality of food they provide.” A few food banks have banned soda while others reportedly pour sugary beverages down the drain and redeem the bottles for cash. But most take soda and candy. “The more junk food they accept from Feeding America’s procurement system, the more food they are entitled to receive later on,” Fisher writes.
Despite the obesity crisis, and the growing evidence about overconsumption of sugar, anti-hunger groups such as the Food Research and Action Center have fought efforts by public-health advocates and local government officials to ban purchases of soda using SNAP. “They made a devil’s bargain, protecting the food security of tens of millions of poor persons in exchange fro dropping the ball on addressing the obesity and diabetes epidemics of this same population,” Fisher says. Soda has been banned from schools, but not from SNAP, even though nearly half of SNAP recipients are kids. A 2015 USDA study comparing SNAP participants to other low-income people found that the SNAP recipients were “more likely to be obese, to drink more sugar-sweetened sodas, to have a lower healthy index eating index score,” Fisher writes. “Children on SNAP consumed a larger proportion of empty calories.” Your tax dollars at work, folks.
A band-aid approach
As if that weren’t enough, Fisher argues that food banks and food clients have been reluctant to organize their clients to advocate for broader social change–a minimum wage, or stronger anti-poverty programs–for fear of offending corporate donors. They’d rather take donations from supermarkets and restaurants than advocate for their low-paid workers.
By phone, Fisher told me: “Very few food banks will advocate out of the ‘nutrition safety zone.’ It’s controversial. It alienates their boards. It splits their donors.” Some donors, including Walmart, explicitly ask the nonprofits they support not to take positions that are antithetical to the company’s interests. That’s understandable but it has the desired effect of quieting potential critics.
“The band-aid approach of the charitable food sector,” he writes, “largely fails to address the root causes of hunger and thus the sector perpetuates its own continue and growth.” In essence, Fisher is saying to the hunger sector: Don’t just feed people, organize them.
I’m not sure what to think about all of this and that shouldn’t be a surprise: I’ve never had to worry about where to get my next meal. My intuition is that we’d be better off if we replaced a broad array of government programs to help the poor — SNAP, Section 8 housing vouchers, rent controls, job training programs, etc — with a Universal Basic Income supported by a more progressive tax system. But my intuition matters less than what poor people think.
Big Hunger is a good book. It would have been better if Fisher had given voice to the hungry. He does quote Joel Berg, the CEO of a nonprofit called Hunger Free America, who, citing the women’s movement, the civil rights movement and the marriage-equality movement, has written:
No social movement in history has been won entirely by one people on behalf of another.
Thus it is absurd to believe that any attempt to finally end hunger or poverty in the U.S. can succeed without the significant involvement and leadership of low-income Americans.
Every poverty and hunger group in the country should begin or expand their efforts to better engage low-income people,
Foundations and private donors should also encourage these endeavors by funding them.
Lately, anti-hunger groups are doing better at listening to the poor, and helping them organize, Fisher tells me. In these parlous times, that’s welcome news.