Rube_Professor

The Anti Hunger-Industrial Complex

What do fast food worker strikes and a DC living wage ordinance have in common with Hunger Action Month? Unfortunately, not enough. A wave of one-day strikes against fast food restaurants is rolling across the country. On August 29, thousands of workers in more than 50 cities protested their low wages, demanding a raise to $15/hour. In Washington, Mayor Vincent Gray has on his desk the Large Retailer Accountability Act that would raise minimum wage for employees of new Walmart stores to $12.50/hour, up from current average of $8.81 nationally. Walmart has threatened to halt construction on three new stores in the nation’s capital if he signs the bill.

This month, Feeding America launched Hunger Action Month, and they’re encouraging the public to wear orange, volunteer at local food banks, tell their Congressmember to support the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and experience food insecurity personally by living on the average food stamp allotment of $4.50/day.

Every anti-hunger advocate will tell you that hunger is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is shaped by unemployment, underemployment, and low wages.

Given that, one would expect that anti-hunger groups would be publicly supporting the fast food workers as well as lobbying Mayor Gray to sign the living wage bill. Increasing the wages of workers in the service and retail industries would put a dramatic dent in the food insecurity rates in the U.S.

Unfortunately, almost no anti-hunger group has stepped forward on either issue. The two notable exceptions are Hunger Action Network of NY State, which has called for an increase to the minimum wage for tipped workers to $10/hour, and Bread for the World, whose President has called for an economic bill of rights.

Perhaps their lack of attention to this issue is grounded in the fact that many anti-hunger groups, especially food banks, are joined at the hip to corporations. In researching an upcoming book, tentatively entitled Hunger Incorporated, I have found that about one in every four food bank board members works at a Fortune 1000 company. Walmart staff sit on the boards of about one of every eight food banks. Walmart has committed to donating 1.75 billion pounds of food and $250 million in grants from 2010 to 2015.

The two main DC-based anti-hunger groups have both received substantial grants from Walmart Foundation. In 2011, DC Hunger Solutions received $400,000. The Capital Area Food Bank was awarded a mobile food pantry truck valued at $90,000 in 2012.

On the fast food front, Arby’s has been funding Share Our Strength (SOS), whose No Kid Hungry campaign seeks to wipe out childhood hunger. In 2012, Arby’s raised $2.7 million for childhood hunger, much of which went to SOS. Ironically, while Arby’s employees are protesting the fact that they don’t earn enough to feed their children, the company is donating chump change to non-profits such as SOS to end childhood hunger. Want some fries and a softdrink with that chutzpah, Arby’s?

Similarly, McDonald’s is supporting the Greater Chicago Food Depository with “strategic introductions to McDonald’s top suppliers,” such as Tyson Foods, as well as the Depository’s workforce development program through providing trainees with exposure to McDonald’s own culinary training facilities. In a case that sounds like the 21st Century version of the company store, McDonald’s is under fire from its workers for paying them with fee-laden debit cards instead of regular paychecks.

These relationships form the core of the charitable industrial complex, where corporate images get burnished and social change languishes. They do little to solve the underlying problems to hunger, but instead create a perpetual poverty machine, in the words of Warren Buffett’s son, Peter.

Or, perhaps the reason for the anti-hunger movement’s inaction on these pressing matters is related to their vision of anti-hunger work. Many groups, such as SOS, see their role as protecting federal food programs and encouraging all eligible persons to participate. Their goal is to ensure that no kid misses a meal, rather than reduce the growing economic inequality that is the underlying cause of hunger in the U.S.

Yet, 50 years of food stamps and more than 30 years of food banking has shown that neither addresses the root causes of hunger.  In the America of 2013, both are necessary but insufficient to solve the problem.  At best, we’ve been treading water for many decades in dealing with hunger. In fact the latest food security numbers show essentially no change from 2011 to 2012 despite an improving economy.

It’s time to look for new inspiration, new approaches, and new partners. There is no better place to start than with the wisdom of those directly affected by hunger themselves. A template for a strike letter for fast food workers shows how the poor want justice not welfare: “We are sick of making poverty wages and living on food stamps, in shelters, on family’s couches and not being able to provide for our children as hard as we work.”

That’s a real vision for ending childhood hunger: Help workers get paid a living wage so they can afford to feed their kids, like everyone else.

The anti-hunger movement needs a broader agenda than just maintaining or even increasing federal food programs and charity. It needs to exact a much higher price from corporate America in the form of greater social responsibility and higher wages, if companies want to improve their image on the backs of the anti-hunger movement. It needs to stop being a cheap date.

For Hunger Action Month, anti-hunger groups should take real action and join in support of the workers who rely on food banks and food stamps to make ends meet. I would proudly dress in orange all month long to support that effort.

Image: Rube Goldberg’s “Self Operating Napkin”

8 thoughts on “The Anti Hunger-Industrial Complex

  1. Just found out that NY City Coalition Against Hunger issued a statement on Twitter supporting the fast food worker strike. Way to go Joel Berg!

  2. livable wages have been central to anti-hunger debate for some time, as have rights to housing, and access to healthcare and job training to mention a few items. although it is important to keep an eye on new corporate influences on the national food bank level (really, it is!) I do think you are creating silos to fit anti-hunger advocates in where they might not really exist. I would implore you to do some heavy lifting and rather than deconstruct the snap or child nutrition programs for their historical inability to end hunger how about bolstering these threads of assistance while taking action around wages and job training? further your comment about an ‘improving economy’ is shallow as most know that the poor have remained poor and any of the growth has been at the corporate level largely because of wage cuts, de-unionization, less hours etc… which I know you understand. I think we are witnessing a robust version of the old ‘debt is public and profit is private’ scenario that we’ve seen a lot of historically and that promises more to come. lastly, don’t tell me my work is not ‘real’ if I want to wear orange, take otherwise landfill designated food from Walmart and sign-up a family for snap (wholly realizing that the family very well could work at Walmart). maybe I’ve had a long week but those are some divisive words!

  3. I totally agree with Andy. At the heart of much social change work, particularly in food systems, their are deep contradictions born of funding challenges. Conscious our unconscious, those of us seeking change often take the money and become dependent on the source. Then the survival drive can keep us from speaking truth to power. The problem gets worse for us all with each passing year as wealth is further concentrated and with it charitable sources. Soon only corporations and the very wealthy who create foundations will be able to fund social change efforts. That is dangerous for all involved.

  4. Andy – this is a great and very informative post. Thanks for bringing to light the reality of where our hunger programs have evolved to and the unfortunate disconnect between quite related issues of income inequality. Having worked, volunteered, and supported food banks for years because of the necessity of it, it just makes me think of Zizek’s ‘Don’t Just Do It, Think First’ concept for the new age of diving into issues/activities before we understand them. I just wrote about Sasha Abramsky in a blogpost where he touches on similar income inequality concepts in his book: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780981709116
    Keep up the good work and I’ll be following! Best wishes. John

  5. Andy, you are my newest hero! Thanks so much for the spot light on the Anti-hunger industrial complex. Mr. Dimock I liked your comment, too, on charity/social change org’s dependence upon foundations. I was shocked and stunned to see the connections between “Feeding America” and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. I think the regulatory nature regarding food is way overboard for small producers and small farmers.
    This country was built on family food processing embedded in communities. Profits were actually retained by the laborer who produced the foods. Now everyone needs to be “certified” by high reg’s which only the big boys of food can comply. They create the hungry. We need to take food back to the family/community level and give people choice. I think that will break up the “complex”

    I am looking forward to reading your book- and anything you write!!

  6. Thanks for this illuminating post. Agree 100%. I work every day to try to improve our food system, because it’s messed up and unsustainable. And I support programs that get food to hungry people. But, folks, our industrial ag and food system — for all its myriad shameful faults — has delivered us dirt cheap food. If we’re hungry now, we’re going to be much hungrier when food carries the full price of producing it fairly, ethically and sustainably. The hunger problem is not on the food side of the equation, its on the money side. As Andy says: “That’s a real vision for ending childhood hunger: Help workers get paid a living wage so they can afford to feed their kids, like everyone else.” No truer words have been spoken by anyone in the food movement in decades.