World Hunger Day on May 28th reminds us to consider the causes of chronic hunger and what we can do to overcome them. Andrew Fisher who has worked in the anti-hunger field for twenty-five years, has led successful efforts to gain passage of multiple pieces of federal food and nutrition legislation. In his new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, he takes a critical look at the business of hunger and offers a new vision for the anti-hunger movement.
Why is this book important now?
Big Hunger contributes to the explanation of why Trump got elected in the Rustbelt states of OH, MI, WA, and PA. During the past few decades, economic inequality has surged dramatically, driven by stagnating wages. At the same time, the charitable food sector has become ever more institutionalized. This is no coincidence, as anti-hunger groups worked with corporations to build up a neoliberal/small government approach to addressing hunger through food charity. Trump’s victory in the Rustbelt states of PA, OH, MI, and WI was a reaction to economic insecurity. By failing to organize around wages and jobs—and perpetuating dependency on free food and food stamps—which are stigmatizing- the anti-hunger community has further embedded economic insecurities, and contributed to Trump’s victory.
Second, we stand at a pivotal moment in our history. How will the Left respond to projected cuts in governmental programs and rollbacks in worker protections? Will the anti-hunger movement be able to mobilize even a small portion of its 40 plus million food stamp recipients and charity recipients and tens of millions of volunteers and donors toward the root causes of poverty?
Finally, the anti-hunger movement is in flux. The old guard has aged out. New leaders are taking groups in new directions—toward health and to a more limited degree economic justice. These approaches need to be reinforced, and change accelerated.
What is the Anti-Hunger Industrial Complex?
Eisenhower spoke of how defense policy led to the creation of a permanent arms industry that then joined forces with the military to promote its own perpetuation. I see a parallel with the anti-hunger sector, as federal nutrition policy becomes joined at the hip with multi-national food and farming corporations. The anti-hunger sector, whether through its lobbyists or its food banks, is an integral part of this complex, advocating for policies and programs that benefit the poor, but never really solve the hunger problem. It’s like Peter Buffett’s op-ed in the NYT about the perpetual poverty machine. It is a mutually reinforcing loop, connected by tax deductions, commodity purchases, and public benefit redemptions. Eisenhower saw the military-industrial complex as promoting bellicosity. I see the hunger-industrial complex as promoting diabetes and cancer.
Big Hunger argues that the “unholy alliance” between food banks and Corporate America is undermining the cause of ending hunger in the US. How so?
Hunger is really a symptom of a much more challenging and politically messy problem- poverty and economic inequality. By focusing on hunger, we can feed people day in and day out without really solving its root causes. That service approach—instead of a social change approach which reallocates resources and political power—allows companies to come to the table and appear to be hunger solvers rather than hunger creators. Yet corporations fund anti-hunger work because it is politically sanitized and neutered. Providing people with a bag of food doesn’t challenge their business model or affect their profits. It benefits them by giving them earned media and a halo effect. At the charity level, industry is a core partner—a provider of food, cash, volunteers and Board members (25% of food bank board members work at a Fortune 1000 company).
In exchange, food banks stay within their “nutrition safety zone,” with only a handful advocating for hunger-reducing policies that would be anathema to their corporate partners, such as a higher minimum wage. Companies such as Walmart whose profit model is based on worker exploitation, donate heavily to the anti-hunger sector. The charitable food and SNAP benefits their workers receive just allows them to continue their low road toward profitability.
This alliance has not just undermined attempts to end hunger, but also contributed to health disparities between the poor and the not-poor. The anti-hunger sector has made a devil’s bargain with Big Ag and Big Food. On one hand, industry has been an important player in advocating for SNAP, helping it gain passage in the Farm Bill. But at what cost? This partnership with the beverage industry for example led to an estimated $6.5 billion of SNAP benefits spent on sugary beverages in 2011. It reinforces a poor American diet, and a surging epidemic of diabetes. A recent Walmart and Feeding America PSA encourages the public to buy pop-tarts to generate revenue for hunger relief. This is not a shining example of fundraising ethics in my opinion.
What are some solutions? For food groups and average citizens?
For anti-hunger groups:
- Food banks should adjust their communications to let the public know what is really needed to reduce food insecurity.
- Eliminate canned food drives.
- End food banking as we know it in 20 years. By 2037, it should be only for true emergencies or to social service agencies that use food in their meal programs (e.g. homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters). 10% of food bank budget should be dedicated to public policy by 2022, and by 2027 50% of their budgets should be directed to non-food distribution efforts. Funders should follow suit.
- The anti-hunger community should embrace alliances with labor and economic justice groups to fight for increases in the minimum wage and tipped minimum wages. One potential partnership area between labor and hunger is around the Center for Good Food Purchasing standards, which set labor, animal welfare and environmental standards for institutional food procurement.
- We should pay attention to the back end of federal food programs, directing a small but increasing percentage of them to local and medium sized businesses.
- Make SNAP a true nutrition program, using behavioral economic principles to limit the purchasing of ultra-processed foods.
For concerned citizens:
- Educate yourself about the causes of hunger and food insecurity.
- Donate your time and money to groups that go upstream to address root causes of hunger.
- Don’t buy into cause marketing efforts that encourage you to purchase products to support hunger.
- Question anti-hunger groups on how they are ending hunger and not just providing relief.
- Advocate for policies that end poverty and economic inequality.