It's Time to Reinvent Food Banks, Says Expert Katie Martin | Civil Eats

It’s Time to Reinvent Food Banks, Says Expert Katie Martin

Food is distributed during a mobile food pantry in the agricultural community of Immokalee on February 16, 2021 in Immokalee, Florida.

Over the last year, food banks have been pivotal in keeping millions of Americans fed. But long before the pandemic, it was already clear that the emergency feeding system in the U.S. wasn’t working.

In her new book, Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger, Katie S. Martin, the executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions in Connecticut, offers a blueprint for change. She provides a thoughtful guide for transforming food-focused charities into centers of community empowerment that foster long-term stability and advocates for a paradigm shift away from the notion of hunger as a short-term emergency. Rather, she explains, “If we define hunger as a symptom of poverty caused by a broken system, and rooted in social inequalities, then the solution becomes quite different.”

With a focus on creating a more dignified and welcoming atmosphere, the book offers pragmatic steps for how food banks and pantries can revise their missions, expand their offerings with, for instance, financial literacy classes and connections to other social services, in addition to providing healthier food that clients choose themselves. At the same time, Martin also sees food banks and pantries as potential agents of policy change at the highest level.

As national awareness of the deep systematic inequities contributing to income inequality has grown, and high-profile figures such as First Gentleman Doug Emhoff have turned their attention toward food security, Martin’s book is especially timely. For readers working in the anti-hunger field and those looking to get involved, Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries provides historical context, data-driven examples of particularly effective organizations, and a clear eye toward the future.

Civil Eats recently sat down with Martin by videochat to talk about the impact COVID has had on food security, how the large players in the field are shifting their strategies, and what it will take to create a national system focused on nutritional quality and effective distribution.

We’re having this conversation one year into the pandemic. What do we know about the impact of COVID on hunger?

Feeding America just released some new estimates showing that in 2021, as we’re starting to “recover,” we’re looking at about 42 million Americans struggling with food insecurity. What we know is that among people who were already vulnerable—single moms and communities of color—that insecurity has worsened.

You’ve been working to alleviate hunger for more than two and a half decades. Why was now the time to write this book?

I became interested in hunger early on—in my early 20s—during an internship with my Congressman, Tony P. Hall, from Dayton, Ohio, who has been a lifelong advocate for anti-hunger work. That experience influenced my choice of graduate school and my dissertation work, but it wasn’t a straight line. I was involved in academia most of my life. My undergraduate degree is in political science and my PhD is from the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. I then taught in [various] nutrition departments and, at the University of St. Joseph, I directed the undergraduate Public Health Program.

But my primary passion was always conducting research, by which I mean talking with people who experience food insecurity, as well as working with food pantries and food banks. A few years ago, I left a tenure-track faculty position at a great university to work full-time at a food bank, which is not a typical transition but one that has been fantastic. This experience has given me an insider view of the realities of our food bank system.

You highlight the trauma of a “scarcity mentality,” the experience of not having enough food, money, time, or support. The result is that people tend to focus on the short-term, which can hinder long-term well-being. How can food banks and pantries anticipate this reality and skillfully meet people where they’re at?

When we measure food insecurity, there are validated, standardized questions that we use. The first question is: “We worry whether our food would run out before we had money to buy more.” We ask if that is “often true,” “sometimes true,” or “never true.” So we know that that anxiety is a common phenomenon. When you are caught in the “tyranny of the moment,” that impulse to just focus on today makes sense.

But I think there are a lot of things that we can do to help reduce that stress in the way we design our programs. For example, many food pantries are only open once a month or for a two-hour window once a week. That may be convenient for volunteers or staff, but the trouble is that if you are stressed out about getting enough food or you’re having trouble getting transportation or childcare and you’re going to miss the food distribution line, that adds to the anxiety. As we move toward helping people become more food secure and self-sufficient, we have to first help them out of that anxiety so that they can begin to plan for the future. We can do that with programming to help people move along a continuum toward stability.

The other thing that’s really important about the scarcity mentality is that we also see it at the organizational level. Very often, food pantries and banks also have the mindset that we don’t have enough: not enough time, volunteers, space, or resources—especially when there’s so much need. We can get stuck in “we just need to get people food for today” mindset, which can limit us in also providing long-term solutions.

Your book is very data-driven and you suggest that food pantries partner with universities for researching and evaluating a program’s effectiveness. That sounds both important and hard. Why is getting that data so necessary and what might that partnership look like?

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Food banks and food pantries have evolved and grown for decades; this is not a new program. And yet, there’s been so little research conducted to look at what happens to people once they receive food. Even though pantries in communities all around the country are run very differently, and we don’t take the time, typically, to ask if there’s one type that’s more effective in helping people to be more stable or to make healthy food choices. We really haven’t done much evaluation, and I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, a lot is changing. We now have academic researchers, who recognize that food insecurity is a social determinant of health; that food insecurity is a precursor to a lot of other factors that a family may experience in terms of chronic disease risk. At universities, there are often faculty members, graduate students, even undergraduates, who need to conduct community research. I would encourage them to reach out to local programs. But rather than coming in with your own hypothesis, I would say to talk with the food bank or pantry to ask if there’s a program they want evaluated or a question they want answered.

If you are working at a food bank or food pantry and you would like to conduct some research but might not have that capacity, try reaching out to a local university with a nutrition department, a public health department, a social work department, or a public policy program. All of those places can be great resources.

You cite a 2018 study that found that 25 percent of food distributed by food banks is considered unhealthy. You recommend implementing nutrition policies, banning certain items, such as candy and soda, while also requesting more specific kinds of donations—including vegetables. What would this shift require?

Historically, when we think about hunger, we think about people not having enough food or enough calories. With that mindset, the solution becomes really simple: we need to collect food. It’s just about the quantity. But there’s so much evidence and research showing that people who are food insecure are at the highest risk for chronic diseases: type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, and hypertension. So, we need to pay attention to the quality of the food we are collecting and distributing.

Within this charitable food system, most of the food comes from donations. (Only a small percentage comes in through community food drives.) Most of the donations come from food manufacturers, food producers, and retail grocery stores. But, as is often the case with that scarcity mentality at the organizational level, there is this understanding that we can’t say no to a donor.

Thankfully, that has been shifting. As the MAZON report documented, more food banks are creating a policy, a standard. Because when we are talking with donors, we need a codified standard for what we mean by “healthy” or “unhealthy” food. There are new nutrition guidelines for the charitable food system that were created last year from Healthy Eating Research, which is funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. They’ve been adopted by Feeding America, the national organization that oversees [many] foodbanks. I think that’s going to help us get closer to a national system for the nutritional quality of the food we collect and distribute.

As you say, most of the donations are from big companies. And yet, in the book, you also address income inequality and the larger systematic problems that stem from corporate profit. How do you understand this paradox?

Andy Fisher’s book Big Hunger shed tremendous light on this reliance on big corporations, both financial and in terms of the food itself, and how that may limit our ability to be stronger advocates for reducing incoming inequality or paying living wages.

But aside from the food donations, when we think of income inequality, we typically focus on the government. That’s a good place to start; obviously, the federal government creates a federal minimum wage, which is long outdated and needs to be increased. But we don’t talk enough about the corporate sector. I think we can all be leaning more on the business sector by saying they need to do their part as well. For instance, even if we have a higher minimum wage, often corporations—some of whom donate quite generously to food banks—will hire people at just below full-time status so they don’t have to pay for benefits. So, we need to make sure that the people who work for those corporations are not likely to need a food pantry.

What does that work look like for you and how do we hold businesses accountable?

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Part of it is looking at the mission, vision, and values of a food bank. For a long time, the mission was to fight hunger and, therefore, only focus on collecting and distributing food. But that doesn’t take into account income inequality. If our focus is on building food security, though, and making sure that everyone in our community has the ability to thrive, then the relationships with corporate donors become more apparent. I would advocate to start local. Look at who has been donating at the local level. See if you can begin the conversation there, so the food and financial donations are aligned with the mission of the food bank. I know there have been some progressive food banks that will say no to corporate donations if they’re not in alignment with their mission.

You referenced Feeding America, which is the largest American hunger relief organization. Some critics may even say a “monopoly.” Yet your book encourages local empowerment, building on the strengths of clients and volunteers within their specific community. How do you align the enormity of an organization like Feeding America with the more grassroots vision of food pantries you describe in your book?

Feeding America has evolved a lot recently. Their new CEO, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, is amazing and she has really put a focus on listening to food banks within the network. Historically, it had been more of a top-down approach, moving food in pounds, so that any corporate donor who helped bring in those pounds was accepted. But Feeding America is putting a lot of energy into diversity, equity, and inclusion. With all the generous funding that has come with COVID, Feeding America has turned that money around and funneled it right back into local communities. I think progressive change is happening at the top. Feeding America also has an Ending Hunger community of practice and one of the pillars of their strategic planning is not just food for today but keeping food security as our North Star.

So that money coming in, is that government stimulus money?

No, it’s corporate funding, like from Amazon. That money is coming through Feeding America, and they are putting it back into local communities.

Given the COVID health restrictions, there has been an understandable downturn in volunteers. And yet, at the same time, do you think more Americans are committing to help out their neighbors than ever before? Are you hopeful this pandemic can serve to galvanize us at both the local and national level? For people reading this book who are eager to begin to volunteer—perhaps for the first time—what advice do you have?

I’m a hopeful person in general, but I am also hopeful that this book is coming out at exactly the right time. I was writing it during the early days of COVID, and when we witnessed the murder of George Floyd. So, I was able to incorporate our raised awareness not just of income inequality and food insecurity but also of systemic racism. Because of this growing national awareness, so many more people are looking to their local food pantries as an opportunity to get involved. I highlighted a lot of wonderful programs, policies, and innovative ideas happening around the country, but I also see room for improvement. For people who are considering volunteering at their local food pantry, my hope is that this is the time not just for getting back to “normal,” but for reinventing how we do this good work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Liesl Schwabe's essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, LitHub, and Word Without Borders, among other publications. A 2019 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in Kolkata, India, she currently directs the Writing Program at Yeshiva College. Read more >

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  1. Obviously I haven't read the book. I wonder if it references the repositioning of The Stop food bank in Toronto and how it has reshaped the mission and vision of food banks across Canada.
  2. Elizabeth Clark
    Thank you for this comprehensive, no nonsense coverage of an issue that affects my city, Dallas, well known for its “can do” spirit & well run non profit food banks/kitchens. My interest would be to up the inclusion of fresh vegetables and now you’ve given me an insight as to to best approach the issue.
    Thank you for adding your thoughts to Civil Eats to further educate society on yet another issue badly in need of getting the issue right. Food quality is generally substandard and worse: the majority of society does not know just how bad off the food system is. Most of the slop we put in our mouths is killing us, and food banks could be, at the very least, offering those they want to help, a cut above the usual fanfare. Question is will partakers know the difference, or worse: will they eat what is best?

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