Feed the Need or Shorten the Line?
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
I read 'Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups', and it forever changed the way I think about food banks and food insecurity. Author Andrew Fisher argues that many key anti-hunger advocates are missing an essential element of the problem: economic inequality driven by low wages. His research finds that efforts to end hunger, reduce obesity, and reform farm subsidies are compromised by corporate interests.
There's no question that food banks play an outsize role in food waste reduction. Large manufacturers, supermarket chains, wholesalers, farmers, food brokers, restaurants, caterers, corporate dining rooms, hotels, and other food establishments can receive tax benefits for donating food that would otherwise be disposed of. Seems like a win-win, right? Millions of tons of waste are diverted from landfill, food donors save considerable sums in disposal charges and taxes, and people who are hungry get fed. So what's the problem?
"We have pretended that the problem is hunger and not poverty. We’ve pretended that the solution to hunger is charity, not ensuring the right to food or increasing the political power of the poor."
Food banks were never supposed to become permanent fixtures in modern society. Food charity has been growing by leaps and bounds since the early 1980s, when food banks took hold as a community-based answer to food stamp cutbacks in the midst of a deep recession. As the welfare state shrank, the number of food banks and food pantries rose in the face of decades of stagnating wages and the rising cost of living. However, this industry is not a sustainable solution to food insecurity. Like recycling and the problem of plastics pollution, food banks are merely band-aids on the sores of waste and injustice.
But is it fair to expect food banks to play a role in 'shortening the line', when their immediate mission is to 'feed the need'? Here's some things to think about:
Dignified access to good food is a fundamental component of the human right to adequate food. Does feeding people food waste undermine this right?
The benefits of using food waste to feed people accrue primarily to the food industry, and absolve government of any responsibility to address food insecurity.
Food security is not achieved via emergency food relief. Emergency food relief is a temporary, not sustainable, solution.
Are food banks and government-funded medical insurance programs like Medicaid essentially providing 'corporate welfare' to large corporations, absolving the companies from having to provide living wages and medical insurance?
So as not to offend their bi-partisan donor base, the vast majority of food banks only dip their toes into political waters, advocating for federal commodities and tax deductions that benefit their bottom line
Low-income individuals don’t meet the needs of food banks that use their boards as fundraising entities, whose responsibilities are bluntly phrased as “give, get, or get off". Without a significant representation of food pantry staff and their clients on food bank boards, food bank decision making will be driven by the economic interests of organizational self-perpetuation rather than the political exigencies of hunger elimination.
Hunger relief has become quite a marketable cause because of hunger’s universal immorality. Supporting these efforts is a safe way for corporations to enhance their reputation as a caring company without threatening their profits. The truth however is that they receive quite a haul for their spare change.
" It’s an easy sell to this board to be doing SNAP outreach and advocacy on SNAP. It is more challenging to convince them that we should work on health care and minimum wage. If I were too out there on living wages, I would get backlash. Walmart is now the biggest donor to food banks."
Gloria McAdam, former CEO of Foodshare in Hartford, Connecticut
Given that 80 to 100 million people are participating in food drives annually, and 46 million are receiving food and millions are volunteering, we can reasonably conclude that one third to one half of the country’s 327 million people are involved with food charity at some point during the year (either as a donor, volunteer or recipient). Were food banks to educate and mobilize even a modest percentage of these individuals toward political action, their voices, linked with other progressives, could shift the public debate around such issues as minimum wage, affordable housing and universal healthcare.
The Top of the Food Recovery Hierarchy: Strategies for Reducing the Creation of Food Waste in the First Place
ReFed is a multi-stakeholder nonprofit comprised of businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste with data-driven solutions. ReFed's approach is centered on the idea that food waste prevention, the top tier of the food recovery hierarchy, can save resources, create jobs, alleviate hunger, conserve water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — all while stimulating a new multi-billion dollar market opportunity.
While ReFed's proposed solutions do in fact reduce food waste, most do not address the problem of food insecurity (to be fair, reducing food waste, not food insecurity, is their stated mission). However, some ideas do create jobs, which of course can help 'shorten the line'. A sampling of food waste solutions:
Eliminating trays in all-you-can-eat dining facilities to reduce over-portioning by consumers
Using smaller-sized plates in all-you-can-eat dining establishments to minimize consumer food waste
Providing restaurants and food service providers with data on wasteful practices to inform behavioral and operational changes
Large-scale advocacy campaigns to raise awareness and educate consumers about ways to save money and prevent wasted food.
Packaging technologies that actively slow fruit and meat spoilage through ethylene absorption and other techniques
ReFed states that consumers can save $5.6 billion annually by cutting unnecessary spending on food that is never eaten through proper planning, prep, and storage of food and by creating or purchasing home composting systems.
Stay tuned for our next installment in our series on food waste - we're going to talk more about the top of the food recovery hierarchy: reducing the creation of waste in the first place, and strategies you can use to reduce food waste at home.