Steve Holt is a writer living in Boston. His work regularly appears in Civil Eats and Edible Boston.
The new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups argues that food banks and pantries don’t chip away at underlying issues that keep people food-insecure.
In many metropolitan areas, the food bank is viewed as a vital and beloved community institution. Companies send teams of volunteers down around the holidays to sort through canned soups and boxed macaroni. Can drives at schools and offices warm the hearts of those who give and fill the shelves of food banks and pantries. To most, the food bank is utterly non-controversial, revered on both the political left and right for its steady work helping to feed the roughly 40 million Americans who sometimes wonder where their next meal will come from.
The longtime Portland, Oregon-based anti-hunger activist Andy Fisher tells a different story in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher, a founder of the National Food Security Coalition, writes that food banks and other anti-hunger organizations (as well as federal programs) are far too cozy with big corporations. He describes the result as “toxic charity” that has barely moved the needle on American food insecurity in more than 30 years.
CityLab sat down with Fisher to hear more about why he views much of the emergency food system as unhelpful—and what can be done to improve it.
How has our approach to addressing food insecurity changed over time?
In the early 1980s, there was a large recession. The Reagan administration came in and slashed federal programs such as food stamps. There was a decline in manufacturing jobs. So what had been just a few food banks around the country grew dramatically to about 180 by the end of the decade.
We began to really embark on a charity approach as a more serious attempt to address what was considered to be an emergency at the time—which is why it was called the “emergency food system.” But that emergency never really went away. It just became institutionalized, and there’s been a permanent amount of food insecurity around the country since then. That’s one approach.
Another approach was welfare reform [under the] Clinton administration. That also reinforced the need for a charity approach because it lifted the government’s role in providing for basic income for the most impoverished people in the country.
Since then, charity has become much more institutionalized. Nearly 5 billion pounds of food a year gets distributed through food banks. There are more than 200 food banks in the Feeding America network. They have become, in many ways, a dependent of the food industry.
I believe you coin a term in the book: the “anti-hunger industrial complex.” Unpack that for us.
In 1961, before he left office, President Eisenhower gives a speech in which he warns the U.S. about the confluence of industry and government together to promote bellicosity, to promote war, as a tool to build the defense industry.
I see in some ways a very similar thing in [the anti-hunger] world. I see the United States Department of Agriculture, which operates the federal nutrition programs [that distribute] around $85 billion worth of food and cash around the country—with the food industry, which depends very heavily on, for example, food stamps. For instance, Kraft says that one-sixth of its sales are food stamp-related. And anti-hunger groups, who play a key role in both advocating for federal nutrition programs and protecting those programs and food banks, who are distributing the waste from the food industry. All of those groups get a lot of benefits from these connections.
From an anti-hunger perspective, they’re using their connections with industry to protect federal nutrition programs—especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—and find [industry] participation in congressional lobbying essential to passage of those programs. On one level it’s great that industry is doing that because they’re protecting federal nutrition programs, but on another level, they also lobby protection of what they consider consumer choice in those programs—such as the continued inclusion of soda and junk food in [SNAP benefits].
The other part of this is that industry provides donations to nonprofit organizations, in the shape of food, volunteers, or cash donations. Walmart is perhaps the most egregious example of this. Walmart doesn’t pay its workers very well. And because it pays its workers so poorly, they have to rely on food stamps and food banks to make ends meet. So then, Walmart goes ahead and uses its charitable donations to pay food banks, to pay anti-hunger groups to support SNAP—which enables [Walmart] to pay its workers low wages. And then it also redeems about 1 in 6 SNAP dollars around the country.
Just as Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex promoting bellicosity at the expense of peace, I think what we’re seeing is that the anti-hunger industrial complex is focused on maintaining hunger as a problem because people are benefitting from it rather than actively seeking to end the problem.
You’re pretty tough in the book on big-city food banks in places like Boston, Chicago, Texas, and elsewhere.
Why do I take aim at food banks? They have the resources, the staff, the expertise to be able to be more proactive—and they have the heft to be able to change things. They distribute 5 billion pounds of food. Each individual food bank has a multimillion dollar budget, so they can do better, they have to do better. To me, they’re really at the crux of the problem.
They’re using those resources in a way that allows corporations to come in as problem solvers rather than problem causers—but to also not really address the root causes and to perpetuate the problem through just treating the symptoms of it.
But in the public imagination, food banks do a lot of good, right?
You’re exactly right. They’re like hospitals. Everybody loves hospitals, or loves the local museum. They’ve become mainstream, they’ve become respectable. And they try to cultivate that respectability because many of them feel it gives them an “in” and a voice to be able to better advocate for their client.
Partly, why I wanted to address this is to come back at the bipartisan, centrist, middle-of-the-road approach to addressing hunger. Government has, for the most part, abdicated its role in providing for people’s rights to food [through] cutbacks to SNAP and cutbacks to welfare.
It doesn’t work. What I’m trying to call attention to is that this approach solves hunger for today. It gives people three days’ worth of food at the end of the month; next month, they arrive at the same damn situation. It doesn’t solve poverty, much less the issues around economic inequality and power. It doesn’t address the wages that people get paid, so they don’t have to go to the food bank.
The second point is that it causes damage to people’s dignity. No one wants to be relying on charity, no one wants to feel like they can’t feed their families. Going to a food pantry and getting a box of food, or even being able to “shop” themselves, has an inherent indignity to it. I write about that in the book, about my own experiences as a volunteer in feeling that there’s this power dynamic between myself as a volunteer enabling people to get food. And I flipped it around and did it as a recipient, and it’s the same thing—it’s a horrible feeling. And I did it essentially as a journalist and a reporter, but to be doing it on a regular basis is totally disempowering.
Where we’ve come with this after 35 or 40 years of doing this is that the way the public thinks we deal with hunger is through a food drive. They think that’s a solution to hunger, and it’s not.
Is there a better way to do food banking? What examples have you seen across the country?
There’s a lot better ways to do food banking. A lot of food banks are moving toward distributing higher-quality food. [The California Association of Food Banks has] something called the Farm to Family program that gleans fields and packing houses, and at some food banks two-thirds of what’s distributed is produce. So they’re giving out good stuff. That’s in recognition of the fact that produce is hard to get in many low-income communities. People can access chips and soda at their local corner store, but the produce is harder to find.
Some food banks are starting to exclude unhealthy foods. In Santa Cruz, they’re not distributing soda. They’re taking it, but they’re pouring it down the drains. They’re not taking birthday cakes or candy. They’re measuring the quality—they’re tracking it. That’s something a lot of food banks are moving toward, which is fantastic.
In Toronto, there’s a program called The Stop, which is a food pantry in a down-and-out neighborhood, that started to change the way it treated people. It calls its clients “members,” it feeds them lunch before they distribute food to reduce that “hangry” condition people have. They develop relationships with their members. They advocate with them for policy change. But they also think about their work as more relational rather than transactional, and I think that’s a really key part.
In your view, what does the ideal food safety net look like?
The way it works right now is we have two safety nets. We have a shredded federal safety net, which includes 15 food programs as well as unemployment insurance and other programs like the earned income tax credit. Entire pieces of it have been decimated over time. Underneath that shredded safety net is another safety net, which is food charity and food banks.
It used to be in the public perception that the ones who were using the safety net were the very vulnerable: Those who didn’t have a job or were drug abusers; children, the elderly. Where we’ve run into problems in the last 20 or 30 years is folks who are relying on the safety net—SNAP and food banks—are people who are working. Sixty percent of the non-elderly who receive food stamps are in households where there’s at least one person working. The reason they’re on SNAP or visiting food banks is because wages are so low. The minimum wage peaked in 1968 and would be over $18 an hour if it kept up with productivity.
That has combined to the point where SNAP has become a work support program. Work support programs used to be things like childcare. Now we’re subsidizing part of the cost of employment to companies.
What needs to happen for us solve hunger in America?
Conventional wisdom says that Trump got elected in places like Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio and Pennsylvania because of the economic insecurity of the working class there. And my back of the envelope evaluation of that way we’ve addressed hunger parallels the decline of manufacturing. Manufacturing declined in the 1980s, food banks institutionalized, and the anti-hunger community never really challenged this idea of privatizing the solution to hunger and taking it out of the government’s hands. We as an anti-hunger movement never challenged the conditions that led to Trump getting elected.
I argue that the anti-hunger community needs to have a vision where we fundamentally change the nature of food banking so it’s not transactional, it’s more relational. So it’s only in cases of emergency. It doesn’t have to be a permanent feature of the American landscape.
We really need to focus on income inequality as a nation. We need to be raising wages and supporting workers in a way that they can make a decent living. That way, people can feed their families and don’t need to be subsidized by the government because they’re working low-wage jobs. So it’s a rethinking of the way we structure how people work in this country.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the amount spent on federal nutrition programs.