Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups  

Is our approach to feeding the hungry mistaken? Do we need to rethink food pantries and food banks? Is our effort to feed the hungry focusing on the wrong end of the problem? Is hunger in America part of a scam that enriches corporations while keeping the poor down? Andrew Fisher asks these questions in Big Hunger. What makes him the authority on food banks and pantries? He is a twenty-five year veteran of anti-hunger campaigns. He served as directors of local and national food organizations. Fisher considers himself as a researcher, organizer, policy advocate and coalition builder. Unlike the author of Feeding the Other he has a strong background in food distribution. He also understands American culture. Big Hunger is one volume in a series of books on Food, Environment, and Health. They are part of a movement toward food justice.

As a food pantry volunteer, I have some reservations with the book’s assessment. Having said that, everyone involved in fighting hunger should consider his perspective. This week I present my best interpretation of his main points. Next week, I will present my thoughts. Key points that he makes in the book include:

Food pantry volunteers should focus on income-inequality activism. Big Hunger emphasizes that the problem is not hunger but income inequality. Hunger is the symptom; poverty, the disease. As long as we continue to focus on hunger, the problem will continue. Food banks and pantries started out as a temporary response to a food shortages. They continue today as a self-perpetuating system. Food bank and pantry volunteers should focus on a Right to Food and not providing a handout. Maldistribution of food and income is not only in the USA. It is a problem around the world. Trickle-down economics benefits the wealthy and does little to help reduce poverty. The American system emphasizes individual need rather than collective benefit to society. The current situation prevents upward mobility. It prevents accumulation and distribution of inherited wealth among the poor.

Deserving and undeserving poor. There appears to be an unconscious divide between pantry clients by pantry volunteers. Children at pantries are deserving. Adults who work for a living are deserving. Unemployed adults are suspect. Is it a permanent or temporary condition? Are they really trying to seek employment? Seeking food at a pantry can be a stigmatizing and humiliating experience. The goal of these programs should be to help those who are hungry out of their condition. It should not be to tide them over for another week, fortnight, or month.

Shorten the line is the main message of the book. Fisher doesn’t believe that hunger will go away overnight. The effort will take time, but it will also take activism. Corporations can’t end hunger. Volunteers can’t end hunger. Political action and governmental programs are the only way to end income inequality. Ending political inequality is the only way to end hunger.

Created as an emergency program to feed the hungry, food banks have become part of “the anti-hunger industrial complex.” The general push should be to move clients out of poverty. Such efforts will cut the numbers of those waiting in line. Today’s situation creates a dependency rather than getting food to those who need it most. SNAP (food stamps) should be a nutrition program rather than an economic handout. It should not permit purchase of sugared sodas and other unhealthy products. Funding for food stamps should increase to give people more healthy food options. The book also wants food systems to be more local and government to increase the minimum wage.

The anti-hunger industrial complex works for corporations and against food-pantry clients. As stated above, hunger is a symptom of the problem not the root cause. The goal of anti-hunger organizations is to increase distribution. With more clients, food pantries expand their offerings. With more demand from pantries, food banks build bigger warehouses. Bigger warehouses push banks to collect more donations and more money. Anti-hunger charities donate more money. Grocery stores and food companies donate more food. The number of clients continues to grow. The cycle gets bigger. Everyone in food distribution is happy, but hunger grows. Workers in the fields and in supply chains suffer from unfair workloads, but they are not paid a living wage. Soon these workers will stand in food pantry lines when not working. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers developed initiatives to improve pay and working conditions. We need more efforts like this one.

frozen convenience items on a pantry shelf
Processed deli items found at a food pantry.

Role of Big Food. Processed foods make up a large portion of items distributed at food pantries. Pantries should replace most processed foods with whole foods. Manufacturing companies benefit on both ends of the chain. Big Food produces more food than it can sell. Such a system maintains store prices and delivers tax benefits for donated items. Food banks and pantries should move away from unhealthy, processed products. They should sponsor classes on nutrition and cooking to improve client health. Big Food is to blame for obesity in America. Processed food is making us fat. More fresh and whole foods distributed will contribute to a thinner America. Pantries should work towards eliminating processed foods and donations from Big Food.

The charity trap ensnares donors, volunteers, and clients in a web of dependence. Food charity positions itself at the “intersection of waste and want.” It creates awkward situations between volunteers and recipients. Volunteers are careful watchers to make sure recipients don’t take more than their fair share of food. Clients resent the roving eyes of their overseers. A trip to the pantry “breeds dependency, deception, and disempowerment.” Anti-hunger charity becomes a big business. Corporate leaders populate boards of food pantries and banks.  Processed-food companies derive marketing benefits from their generosity. They entice consumers to buy their product by promising part of the profits to feed the hungry. Charitable organizations seek donations to perpetuate the scam. Charity is “not a substitute for justice.” The goal is to end hunger not to reduce it.

Breaking the cycle of dependence is where we should start. Anti-hunger organizations are part of a vicious cycle. This cycle only helps groups with special interests. An early step in the solution involves increasing aid to the poor to help them break out of the cycle. Cutting poverty will permit these families to pass on wealth to their children. As such they will become contributing members of society. Pantry clients should have more say in the distribution process. Such efforts are difficult as food recipients may be too shy to speak up at board meetings. Former recipients may be too embarrassed become involved after exiting from the program.

Big Hunger provides a new vision of food distribution. It describes food pantry workers as good people trapped in a bad system. The future emphasis should focus on social and economic justice. It presents a Seven Point Plan for more fair food distribution:

  1. Increase the budget of federal food plans including food stamps,
  2. Increase dialogue across the spectrum between clients, volunteers, and board members,
  3. Educate the public and politicize causes of hunger to stimulate government action,
  4. Promote innovation in food distribution to shift away from processed to whole foods,
  5. Build a food justice movement with new non-corporate alliances,
  6. Demand social justice from corporations to help their workers, and
  7. Recognize that we are now at the crossroads—we need to move ahead to a realistic ending of hunger in America.

Next week: Big Hunger from a different point of view

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