Last week I presented the view of Andrew Fisher on food banks and pantries. In Big Hunger he calls for a reassessment of how we redistribute food to the poor. He suggests that food pantries and banks need to become smaller, distribute healthier food, and decouple themselves from corporate America. Some of his ideas have merit. I disagree with others. Here is my response to his major points.
Food pantry volunteers should focus on income-inequality activism. I am sure that many volunteers across the country are social-justice activists. I have been involved in two different food distribution efforts. In both cases the volunteers were not activists and had no desire to engage in activism. What I observe in volunteers is a sincere desire to help out the poor and hungry. Many colleagues at both venues are moderate-to-conservative Protestants.
The gospel preached in most of these churches presumes that “The poor you always will have with you, but you will not always have me.” Likewise Jesus blesses those on his right “For I was hungry and your gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” When did we do that for you Jesus? “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” Matthew 25 may be the most important chapter in the Bible for Christians distributing food.
The four gospels are filled with parables of Jesus. Many of them describe a mercantile economy composed of rich and poor. Examples include those about the shrewd manager, the prodigal son, and the great banquet. Even the man who ignored Lazarus at the gate, appears to be guilty of neglecting Lazarus and not because of his wealth. Granted these parables can be interpreted many ways, but they don’t seem to be calls for activism. Most of my fellow volunteers would not be amenable to income redistribution. With the help of Amazon.com I counted 69 ‘shoulds’ and 49 ‘musts’ in the book.* Volunteers and clients do not like to hear what they should or must do. If Fisher wishes to reach my colleagues, he should try to better understand their culture.
Deserving and undeserving poor. The author suggests that pantry volunteers characterize children and working adults as the deserving poor. Those who don’t work or are homeless fall into the undeserving poor. One night at the pantry I mentioned that I saw one of our former clients working at my grocery store. That was met with approval by my fellow volunteers. I have not detected animosity to other clients who appear to be unemployed or unemployable. We also serve homeless clients. They receive non-perishable foods as most have no ways of preserving or cooking meals. I detect a bias in Big Hunger against clients who prefer packaged foods. Are they the new undeserving poor? The deserving poor in Fisher’s eyes may be those who prefer whole foods. He is also against giving children candy. We are guilty on that count.
Shorten the line is the call issued throughout Big Hunger. Food distribution to the poor is not supposed to be a permanent fixture. We should be working to eliminate hunger and poverty. The author claims that food pantries evaluate success by the number of clients we serve. In the past few weeks, the pantry has seen a sharp uptick in the number of clients served. We take that as a sign of success. It seems that neither we nor Fisher have the right perspective here. At each meeting before we distribute food we close with a prayer. Then the leader says “Let’s feed some hungry people.” Each client must meet certain criteria to receive food. We don’t know how many we serve are really hungry. We don’t know how many people in our area are really hungry who don’t show up. What percentage of the hungry in the area are we serving? We don’t know, and neither does the author of the book.
The anti-hunger industrial complex represents the enemy in the book. The system is rigged against the poor. With enough disposable income our clients wouldn’t need our food. Big Food wouldn’t benefit. Recipients would be able to purchase enough food to feed their families. Our metric of seeing our services and clientele grow may not be best. If not, what metric gives us a true estimate of how to serve the hungry? How do we shorten the line if we don’t know who in the line is deserving? How do we know how many hungry people are out there that never make it to our line? I’m all for useful metrics, but I don’t know what they are or how to obtain useful data.
Role of Big Food. It is convenient to blame Big Food for most of the ills of our society. Critics blame it for obesity, poor health, cavities, and even crime. Yes, Americans eat too much junk food, and our diets could be improved. Not all processed foods are junk. Not all junk foods are processed. As I point out on this site, processed foods help keep us safe, and they provide convenience to homes without adequate income and appliances to serve healthier meals. Improved incomes among the poor would allow families to purchase and prepare what they want to eat. Such changes would not guarantee less processed food in the market or a healthier population. Banning processed foods from food pantries or supermarkets is not a silver bullet. In fact, such moves might trigger more serious problems for the country.
We provide a mix of processed and whole foods for our clients. Our meats are frozen. Sometimes the produce is great. At other times, marginal. And on occasion it is not fit to distribute. Too often we toss unacceptable fresh produce and processed deli items. Clients at our facility must wait two weeks before they come again. By providing a good mix of perishable and stable foods, the food should last until their next visit. We distribute breads and sweets. All supermarket breads and sweets are ultra-processed. Should only the more wealthy of us have access to these foods? Fisher wishes to hold corporations responsible for treatment of workers in their plants and supply chains. I think that is a good idea, but such actions won’t let Big Food into his food banks and pantries. Note that fresh, whole foods have supply chains and underpaid workers as well.
The charity trap. I tend to agree that empowerment is better than charity. I disagree that charity is worthless. Organizations that empower the disadvantaged improve society. Some charitable organizations help families that are not succeeding stabilize their lives. I would like to see a country without hunger. I would like to see a world without hunger. Until then, I cast my lot with those volunteers who wish to help the hungry continue their work. One of the most inspiring books I’ve read is Immokalee’s Fields of Hope by Carlene Thissen. She describes the miserable conditions documented and undocumented immigrants have faced in the fields of southwestern Florida. Despite unjust policies and practices, charitable organizations have helped many second and third generations climb out of poverty. I admire the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their fight for justice.
Breaking the cycle is fine in theory but so difficult in practice. In my spiritual life I rely on the Serenity Prayer.
I seek serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I cannot change the current political climate that pits neighbor against neighbor. We have the political will to feed the hungry. We do not have the political will to end income inequality.
I try to mount the courage to help change the things I can. My wife and I contribute support to our church, the food pantry, an organization that seeks to provide potable water in third-world countries, and a school for deaf children in the Philippines. I support politicians who support a bubble-up economy by developing legislation to increase income for the poor. Trickle-down policies do not work as they increase income inequality. I would rather see such initiatives come from industry than from government. In today’s environment, such a possibility is unlikely.
I pray for the wisdom to know the difference. It is so easy to get discouraged. It is so easy to become cynical. I do not understand why we justify spending trillions of dollars on wars that provide little lasting benefit to the countries we support. I do not understand why we can afford tax breaks to the wealthiest in our society without paying a living wage to those who served our wants and needs. Helping families who are hungry has become a mission in my life.
Next week: YearUp: an innovative program to move talented, inner-city youth into executive positions by Andrea Hayward
*Note, I use 4 shoulds and 2 musts in this post.