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).
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.
I hope you will visit my blog.