To Solve Hunger, First Solve Poverty

A new book about the business of hunger argues that food charities’ reliance on corporate donations makes solving hunger impossible.


In the past, religious and community groups were the main forces addressing hunger. But, after the economic recession in the early 1980s, and due to budget cuts to federal programs under Ronald Reagan, an entire industry has arisen around providing food to the needy. Meanwhile, chronic hunger persists across the U.S. In fact, the number of food insecure Americans has risen—from 10 percent in 2002 to 13 percent today.

big hunger book coverYes, anti-hunger leaders have been effective at maintaining funding for SNAP [AKA food stamps] and increasing the number of food banks, and federal food programs have remained intact while other anti-poverty programs have been eliminated or slashed. And Andy Fisher, Civil Eats contributor and author of the new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, does see those things as progress. But, he argues that anti-hunger advocates are missing an essential point: That hunger is not an isolated problem, but the product of much larger economic inequality driven by low wages.

According to Fisher, because anti-hunger organizations are heavily reliant on corporate donations of food and money, they have often failed to hold businesses accountable for offshoring jobs, cutting benefits, exploiting workers and rural communities, and resisting wage increases. Based on interviews with over 150 experts, Big Hunger offers a critical look at the business of hunger and offers a new vision for the anti-hunger movement.

In advance of the book’s publication, Civil Eats spoke with Fisher—who has worked in the anti-hunger field for 25 years, and was the co-founder and former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition—about the potential he sees for change in the hunger movement.

How has your many years of experience working in the anti-hunger and community food security movements influenced Big Hunger?

Andy FisherI saw how parts of the anti-hunger community, especially at local levels, embraced a community food security approach. At the same time, I saw how national groups have been reluctant to embrace innovation in federal policy starting with the passage of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program in 1992, and continuing through community food projects, farm to school, and FINI [Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive] even when the amounts of money involved were miniscule.

In the course of your research, were there any “ah-ha” moments that stood out?

In the summer of 2013, I discovered the extent to which large, national anti-hunger organizations were trying to shut down criticism about anti-hunger programs. Steve Holt [who also writes for Civil Eats] wrote a two-part series criticizing food banks for being in bed with corporations for Takepart.com extensively quoting me. When the second part of the series didn’t run, I discovered that Feeding America went “ballistic” after reading the first article. They admitted that the critiques were true, but convinced the website to censor the second article. I also discovered that the Food Research Action Center (FRAC) tried to convince the Harvard School of Public Health to stop publishing research that was critical of the nutritional implications of the SNAP program.

Saru Jayaraman of ROC United, who wrote the foreword, said, “This book could not be coming out at a more important moment in history.” Why is Big Hunger so important now?

The anti-hunger field is arguably the most politically and morally powerful force of civil society when we consider the millions of people who donate food or volunteer, or the 40 million-plus people who go to food pantries or receive food stamps. Over the last few decades, economic inequality driven by stagnating wages has surged. At the same time, the charitable food sector has become ever more institutionalized and complicit with neoliberalism. By failing to organize around wages and jobs, and perpetuating dependency on free food and food stamps, the anti-hunger community contributes to economic insecurity.

In the 1970s, we had only a few food banks, a small number of emergency food sites, and a few million people in the food stamp program. Today we have 200-plus food banks, 60,000 emergency food sites, and 43 million people receiving SNAP. It certainly seems like Americans are hungrier than ever. What’s gone wrong and what can we do?

We’ve pretended that the problem is hunger and not poverty. We’ve pretended that the solution to hunger is charity, not ensuring the right to food or increasing the political power of the poor. We’ve pretended that corporations are not to blame—at least in part—for the economic inequality that leads to hunger. We’ve pretended that we can take billions of dollars from companies such as Walmart and not compromise our integrity. It’s time to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

You write that “the unholy alliance” between corporate America and the anti-hunger movement has undermined our attempt to end hunger and harmed public health. How has that happened?

The food industry has been an important player in advocating for the passage of SNAP in the Farm Bill. But at what cost? The beverage industry, for example, sold an estimated $6.5 billion of SNAP benefits on sugary beverages in 2011. Soda sales to SNAP recipients reinforces a poor American diet, and a diabetes epidemic. At the charity level, industry donates food, cash, volunteers, and board members (25 percent of food bank board members work at a Fortune 1000 company). In exchange, only a handful of food banks advocate for hunger-reducing policies such as a higher minimum wage.

I don’t expect that anti-hunger groups and the corporations you single out will take your accusations lightly. What kind of blowback do you anticipate from Big Hunger?

Speaking truth to power can cause a lot of discomfort. Even before Big Hunger’s release, I am seeing anti-hunger groups in deep blue parts of the country shy away from being associated with the book. But the time is ripe, on many different levels, for change in the hunger movement.

Are there some anti-hunger models that you think are getting it right?

I’m in awe of what Nick Saul has done with The Stop and Community Food Centres of Canada. Witnesses to Hunger is a great model for how to cultivate the leadership of the food insecure, particularly women of color. I like Oregon Food Bank’s commitment to breaking new ground with its food distribution. And WhyHunger encourages the movement to embrace change around racial, social, and economic justice.

Some people will wonder why you are biting the hands that feed the hungry? What do you have to say to those folks?

To anti-hunger volunteers, I say: Yes, I want to put you out of a job. I don’t want you to have to come to a food pantry every week to sort cans or pack groceries. It feels good to help those in need, I get it. But let’s have a serious conversation about whether it’s the best way to solve the hunger problem in the long run.

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  1. Friday, April 21st, 2017
    It is great to see someone shake up the charitable approach to fighting hunger in this wealthy nation of ours. It would be a lengthy piece for me to write a comprehensive response to the points made here in. But I am up to my eyeballs in fighting the battles that need to be fought to effectively address poverty in our midst and can't spare as much time as would be needed. Unfortunately, when we have limited time we tend to be more strident. So, I've run the risk of offending some people and, while some need to be offended, the risk is to lose support for what we do. So, I will apologize up front for any hard feelings I might cause. Here goes.

    First, the word "hunger" is an inappropriate term. The reality is that, while far too many people struggle to pay their bills, the incidence of "hunger" is pretty limited in America. By "hunger" I mean the pangs and the bloated belly that come with them.

    What we do have is millions of people who, even when they work, simply cannot possibly pay the bills. What those of us who run food banks do is enable people to save money on food, thereby freeing up very limited dollars to pay their rent and other unavoidable expenses.

    Hunger is a very charged word, and we need to be more careful with its use.

    Second, emergency food assistance is charity. Charity is what society does when there is no justice. Charity is food assistance. Justice is a job that pays the bills. Charity is a homeless shelter. Justice is an affordable apartment that is safe.

    Third, many well-meaning people support food pantries and food banks because those programs reinforce the notion that the failure of our marketplace is episodic, temporary and, all too often, the fault of the individual for not keeping their nose to the grindstone. They don't want to believe that the marketplace doesn't work as most of us would surmise by the fact that tens of millions of people can't find shelter from the storm of a marketplace that seems to be getting meaner by the day.

    I am grateful to each and every person who reaches out to serve others, regardless of their political views or situation in life. My preference would be helping each and every one of our donors to understand the deeper challenges of our society, its marketplace and the political environment that would have even a single American turning his or her back on their neighbors in need.

    We should be working on raising the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour. We should be reducing the only housing subsidy entitlement in America (the mortgage interest deduction) and shift that lost revenue to real housing subsidies for those unable to work and those whose skills have so little value in our marketplace. We should join the rest of the civilized world by establishing a single-payer, universal health insurance entitlement. We should stop educational apartied that locks inequity into our system in favor of ensuring that every kid in America gets access to quality early childhood education and decent K-12 public education.

    That, my friends, would enable us to shut down much of the anti-poverty and anti-hunger "industry." That would be real success.

    The organization I run, called the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley in Eastern Pennsylvania, could redirect the funding we use to sustain our Second Harvest Food Bank and our homeless shelter in favor of other programs we operate like those that help people start their own business, buy their own home or accumulate other kinds of critical household resources.

    I have tried my best to avoid being publicly critical of some key organizations that do anti-hunger work, including one with which we are closely affiliated. I'm not dumb enough to offend the - pun intended - hand that feeds us. Too many people get paid to keep the system and its inequity in place. That aspect of the status quo should be upended.

    Alan L. Jennings, Executive Director
    Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley
    Bethlehem PA
  2. Suzanne Cooper
    Saturday, April 22nd, 2017
    Great article! I look forward to reading Fisher's book, "Big Hunger"
  3. Sunday, April 23rd, 2017
    Great article, filled with truth and dignity. I volunteer for a hunger free org. and it is amazing the amount of politics involved in this. It really challenges your thought of, am I doing good, or am I aiding cynicism?
  4. Thursday, May 11th, 2017
    We are a small food bank, north of Toronto, Ontario. We know that the issue is poverty. Whether it's unemployment or underemployment or too low a disability pension or too low a retirement pension, it all leads to heat? or lights? or rent?-- or food.
    God bless those who are willing to put the time and energy into solving the larger issue of poverty....it needs a political solution. I hate to see the dollars that have gone into the Hunger Industry, forming coalitions of this and that to achieve this and that. It's appalling, how many people earn decent dollars in the Bureaucracy of Hunger.
    But here's the thing. Until you get poverty solved, people will be suffering the additional stress of 'food insecurity. So we are planning to feed them to the best of our ability, to lower the stress of trying to raise a family without access to enough food. Or should they starve?
  5. Monday, May 15th, 2017
    I would like to refer you to the work of Dr. Katie Martin, at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, CT. Her site is https://www.ittakesmorethanfood.org/