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Is It Time to Defund Food Banks?
A case for reimagining food security.
In the panel I was on earlier this week, Decolonizing the Food System, an audience member asked how food banks could decolonize and address the root causes of food insecurity, namely poverty and structural racism. Panelist Rupa Marya was blunt: you cannot decolonize food banks. She called them "mitigators of capitalistic violence," which cannot be meaningfully restructured. The only solution is new solutions.
As conservatives work to make SNAP benefits more restrictive, the concept of charitable organizations giving food to food-insecure people is less politically fraught. The public, by and large, sees "feeding the hungry" as the right thing to do. We donate canned goods, or collect money for Feeding America, or volunteer at our local food pantry, or double-tap the post about a chef collaborating with Share Our Strength. It feels good and uncomplicated.
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To hear that all this support is at best unhelpful, and can even be harmful is shocking at first, maybe a little insulting. When Janet Poppendieck broached the topic 25 years ago, in her book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, she wrote, "The proliferation of charity contributes to our society's failure to grapple in meaningful ways with poverty." Dana Milbank, reviewing the book in the New York Times, was clearly affronted. You see, he wakes up early every Wednesday to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. He openly states the issues with this arrangement:
I pour the juice, clean the tables and, with a bit of luck, get to scramble the eggs or stir the oatmeal. I often wonder whether it does much good. The place is not terribly efficient, and it has more volunteers than it can use. But, hey, I'm trying. It eases the guilt when I pass a panhandler on the street.
He scoffs at Poppendieck's "unworkable solution" that charitable organizations put their efforts toward advocacy instead of charity, and focus on pressuring the government to find long-term solutions for poverty. To be fair, the review is pretty dated. In 2023, I don't think a New York Times writer would openly scoff at the idea of people calling their representatives to push for legislative change. But also: the good feeling he gets from volunteering, the way it assuages his guilt when he is confronted with a person marginalized by economic inequality — those feelings are alive and well today.
The hunger-alleviation landscape is much more innovative, outspoken, and committed to addressing root causes of poverty than it was 25 years ago, with many organizations dedicated to not just providing food, but working to foster well-being in the long-term. But the larger machine of the "anti-hunger industrial complex" — as Andrew Fisher dubs it in his book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups — is operating as it has for decades, closely aligned with the corporations whose labor practices exacerbate income inequality. This alliance began in the 1990s, Fisher writes, but sounds suspiciously familiar today:
The business community provided the [anti-hunger] movement with money, political capital, and food donations in exchange for positive publicity and a de facto (although sometimes explicit) commitment not to oppose corporate interests. Hunger became a cause célèbre for numerous corporations, and anti-hunger advocates embraced that partnership under the guise of hunger's universal immorality.
If the end goal is Getting free food to people who cannot afford to buy food, this alliance might make sense. But if the goal is instead End poverty, so all people can meet their own needs, the irony becomes clear. Examples of ironic anti-hunger corporate partnerships abound, but here is a recent and egregious one: DoorDash, InstaCart Are Working With Food Banks to Deliver Groceries to People in Need. Of course, getting food to food-insecure people with dignity and efficiency is a good thing. But the real winners are DoorDash and Instacart, who are praised in the article by leaders of partnering anti-hunger groups for "really revolutionizing the food access world and how food banks operate," describing the deliveries as "a vital lifeline."
This particular alliance isn't going anywhere, as DoorDash, Instacart, and Shipt also recently pledged to help fund the Biden administration's strategy for ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030. This quote sums it up for me:
“It is profoundly unsettling that companies like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which refuse to pay their workers a minimum wage floor and overtime, [and] refuse to provide health insurance and workers’ compensation, get cover under an initiative like this,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, a fellow at Stanford University and an advocate for gig workers. “They get to pretend they care about hunger and poverty when, in fact, their firm practices exacerbate hunger and poverty.”
But couldn't we just hold our noses, take the money or donations or deliveries, and use them to help people who need it? Doesn't the end justify the means?
In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows describes a basic characteristic of systems:
The least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior.
The function or purpose of a system is not always expressed explicitly; the best way to figure it out is to observe the system and see how it behaves over time. The current charity-based system of hunger alleviation has been operating for decades, plenty of time to keep an eye on its outcomes. In 1995, the food insecurity rate in the US was 12 percent of households. In 2021, it was 10.2 percent. At this rate, it would take almost 150 years to eradicate food insecurity. (Assuming a continuous rate of decline, which has not been the case up to this point.) For households experiencing very low food security — those who have to skip meals or reduce the amount of food they eat because they don't have enough — the numbers are virtually unchanged, from 4 percent in 1995 to 3.8 percent in 2021.
Twenty-six years of nonstop work from food banks, food pantries, community organizations, their typically-underpaid staff and legions of volunteers…for a 0.2 percent reduction of the number of households experiencing literal hunger. Alleviating hunger is not the purpose of this system.
Instead, perhaps its purpose is to distract from the larger issue of economic inequality and injustice, to convince the public that addressing the symptom (food insecurity) will help cure the disease (poverty and widening economic inequality). By that measure, it is operating quite well.
And so we come to the idea of defunding food banks. Does it make sense to continue funding a charity-based, corporate-aligned hunger-alleviation system that is unable to address food insecurity in the long term? Or is it time to imagine new possibilities? When we call for defunding long standing institutions, I think the intention is to shock — to shake us out of complacency, and inspire us to reimagine what could be if we didn't feel stuck with what is.
There are so many other possibilities beyond the current system. What do I dream about? Food as a human right, as it was in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where in the early '90s, the local government "declared food insecurity to be a market failure which required government intervention to correct" and "they made access to food a right of citizenship for everyone living in Belo Horizonte." It wasn't perfect and it didn't last forever, but it included so many new ideas and approaches that were only possible because of a complete reframing of food security.
I don't pretend to have a short-term solution to the problem of people needing to eat, day after day, and not having the resources to do so. But neither do I think the answer is to deepen investment in a system that is not working for those it purports to help. Is it time to defund food banks? I think it's time to at least talk about it.
I know there are a lot of readers who work in anti-hunger organizations, who truly care about building a more just, equitable, and food-secure future, and I am so curious to hear your thoughts! I am opening up the comments to all subscribers today because I want to know what you think.
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