Contradictions in the Anti-Hunger Movement


The National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington last week brought to light some of the fundamental internal contradictions of the anti-hunger movement. Specifically, the movement’s financial reliance on corporations with poverty-causing labor practices, as well as their reluctance to advocate on the politically-charged root causes of hunger. 

Hosted by Feeding America and the Food Research Action Center, with funding from Walmart, Bank of America and the AARP Foundation, this year’s event featured, for the second year in a row, a prominent representative from Walmart as a plenary speaker. Tres Bailey, Walmart’s Senior Manager of Agriculture and Food, listed off the accomplishments the company has made in its first year of its $2 billion commitment to supporting anti-hunger efforts: 250 million pounds of food donated to food banks; $67 million in grants made; with another $13 million of nutrition education grants in the works.

This sounds impressive until one considers what Mr. Bailey did not mention: the fact that the average Walmart worker, of which there are 1.4 million in the US, earns $8.81 per hour. At this pay rate, a single parent with one child working full time would qualify for food stamps. The public is subsidizing Walmart billions of dollars annually to keep its employees productive, healthy and free of hunger through government food and healthcare programs, yet the company crows about the millions of dollars it distributes to anti-hunger causes. Upon closer examination, what appeared to be an impressive display of philanthropy is little more than Arkansas chutzpah.

At a subsequent workshop during the conference, Lisa Hamler Fugitt, the Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks (OASHFB), drove home the point that “hunger is directly related to poverty, and to end hunger requires policies that increase employment and wages and modest increases in federal nutrition programs.” Yet, OASHFB is one of the few food banks–or state food bank associations–that advocate on policies to reduce poverty, increase the minimum wage, or create jobs. Of the roughly 200 food banks in the Feeding America network, more than half don’t advocate at all, not even to support the renewal of the SNAP (food stamp) program.  Less than one in ten food banks report working on anti-poverty, health or community food security related advocacy.

In fact, there are more food banks with a Walmart employee on their Board of Directors (27) than there are food banks conducting anti-poverty advocacy (19).  Nor is Walmart an anomaly on food bank boards. One in two food bank board members work for a corporation, and one in six are employed at the 500 largest companies nationally or globally (Fortune 500 or Global 500).

The event’s keynote speaker, David Shipler, author of The Working Poor, communicated essentially the same message as Ms. Hamler-Fugitt.  He noted that housing subsidies are a key strategy to reducing hunger, as low-income families often spend 50 percent to 75 percent of their income on rent. They typically cut back on the food budget to ensure that they can cover fixed costs such as heat, electricity, and transportation. As a result, Mr. Shipler noted that studies have found a correlation between the lack of housing subsidies and the incidence of underweight children. Therefore, affordable housing puts more money in the pockets of families to purchase food.

Yet, a close look at Feeding America’s advocacy record shows that they have refrained from weighing in on anti-poverty policy, such as housing subsidies, affordable health care, or minimum wage increases. Unlike other national anti-hunger organizations, Feeding America has failed to join the Save 4 All Campaign, a progressive platform which supports increasing the tax burden on the wealthy and corporations and proposes cuts to defense spending.

The national Feeding America’s Board of Directors has, as might be expected, an even higher degree of corporate penetration, with 11 of 19 members working for Fortune 500 companies (two of whom are executives at Walmart).

These statistics are interesting for what they show–the close ties between the corporate world and the charitable food sector–but also for what is not shown. The limited participation of food bank clients and non-profit activists on these Boards is an indicator of the minimal accountability that food banks have to the communities they serve.

Corporate participation on food bank boards is a double-edged sword. It reinforces the respectability of food banks, while providing access to corporations’ excess food and philanthropic largesse. These resources are essential to help food banks meet the increasing demand from those affected by the latest recession. The more mainstream a food bank becomes, the more it can raise to feed hungry people.

On the other hand, the policy changes needed to reduce or eliminate hunger are anathema to the wealthy and the corporations on food bank boards. These changes might result in increased operational costs or federal taxes for businesses. Thus, the high degree of corporate participation on food banks’ Boards serves as a prophylactic measure to these entities advocating for redistributive policies that go against the interests of the business sector, but provide a real solution for poverty reduction.

These relationships as embodied at the recent anti-hunger policy conference raise some vital questions for the anti-hunger movement: Who are its partners? Who shares the stage with them? Those who pay its salaries with their philanthropic greenwashing? Or those who support its goals through their actions?

It is going to take some real changes for the anti-hunger community to fully embrace the systemic analysis of ending hunger through addressing its root causes, articulated by Lisa Hamler-Fugitt and David Shipler among others. The movement’s leadership needs to start with the following steps, as well as many others:

Without a concerted effort to regain its social justice footing through these steps and others like them, the anti-hunger movement may find its moral compass off kilter due to the magnetic pull of the corporate treasure chest.

Photo: Walmart via Shutterstock

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  1. Wednesday, March 7th, 2012
    Thank you Andy Fisher for telling the truth about our nation's hunger problem. Like so many ills in our society, we are smart to look upstream to fix the cause(s).

    Many years ago I heard former Surgeon General David Satcher speak at the U. of MO. He said that if we really wanted to fix childhood obesity, then we had to address poverty; institute a living wage, provide affordable housing and health care for ALL.

    Hunger and its related ills can't be fixed with corporate handouts of damaged boxes of Froot Loops and Food Stamps/SNAP for soft drinks.

    I'm anxiously awaiting your book, Andy. Keep speaking out. Your pen is your sword.

    Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
  2. Wednesday, March 7th, 2012
    I'll suspect that these food pantry agencies do not want to bite the hand that feeds them. People are trying to do what they can from day to day, not planning for the future. Food distribution operations are mostly designed around dealing with excess and food system waste, and not necessarily around giving people the the most nutritious food.
    I hope you will visit my blog.
  3. Small is Beautiful
    Thursday, March 8th, 2012
    Thank you, Andy. As the ED of a very grassroots educational garden that gives food away to those in need, and that seeks real solutions, I am overjoyed to see someone speak the truth. A food bank gets hundreds of thousands a year in donations and assistance while perpetuating the problem. Like many grass-roots gardens, we make it our mission to grow healthy food for those in need while bringing the entire community together to address all types of hunger: hunger for food, for knowledge, for community, etc. No matter your socio-economic status, you have something to give and something you hunger for. It is also our mission to work ourselves out of the need to exist. That is generally not the case with any hunger organization that is not extremely small and local. Again, thank you!!
  4. Thursday, March 8th, 2012
    The article does address a real problem. But the food banks and Feeding Americaare not the anti-hunger movement - though they are the ones who the politicians prefer to talk to. The very word bank emphasizes the corporate orientation of these programs. Food pantries and soup kitchens tend to be more grassroots. But except for the larger and older ones, they tend to focus on charity and not advocating for justice. And only a handful seek to empower and mobilize their guests to advocate for long term solutions.
  5. Monday, March 12th, 2012
    That is quite the irony. If only they could allocate a portion of their donations to the improvement of their employee salary wages, then it would actually be a winning effort.