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Can food banks put an end to hunger if their biggest donors are the cause of the hunger?

A new wave of activist food banks are starting to try to put themselves out of business, by working on issues like minimum wage and rent control in an effort to fix the underlying problems that cause hunger.

Can food banks put an end to hunger if their biggest donors are the cause of the hunger?
[Photos: Augustus Binu/Wikimedia Commons; iStock/Vasyl Dolmatov]

Each year, food companies and supermarkets donate millions of meals to hunger relief nonprofits like the Greater Boston Food Bank, a massive warehouse with two-story-tall refrigerators. Around the country, a sophisticated network of food banks and pantries helps feed people every day. But despite the billions invested in the system, it’s designed to mitigate hunger, not fix the underlying problems that cause it: millions of people in the country still rely on donated food—even if they have full-time work.

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“We have the most-efficient emergency food system, and we have historically low unemployment,” says Noreen Springstead, the executive director of the nonprofit WhyHunger. “And still 40 million Americans are hungry.” Hunger is less a problem of food scarcity than of poverty, she argues. And that means that the country’s system of hunger relief, and the philanthropy supporting it, needs to continue to evolve.

That evolution means food banks’ new end goal is to essentially put themselves out of business. But as they work on that challenge, by turning toward more pointed advocacy in the fight against the causes of hunger, it often means threatening the very donors that provide them with funds and food: Supermarket giants are often the companies paying the low wages that mean even employed workers must seek help at the food banks. And without those corporate partners, their primary mission of hunger relief comes under threat.

Going beyond providing meals

The first food bank in the U.S. was set up in 1967 in Phoenix. It was designed to save food that would have been wasted at supermarkets and distribute it to smaller soup kitchens and food pantries, which distribute food directly to the needy. By the early 1980s, as a recession hit and the Reagan administration cut back government support programs, other food banks began to spring up across the country. “It was a very well-intentioned idea to help those who were in an emergency situation,” she says. “Over time, they started proliferating, and food charity became the de facto solution to hunger, which was not really an emergency anymore. It’s an entrenched social problem.” Today, Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks, includes 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries.

We actually have a wage problem. We don’t have a hunger problem.”

In 2014, Feeding America found that 54% of the households that received food from its food banks had at least one member who was employed in the last year; 43% had at least one member who worked full-time, but still didn’t earn enough to cover bills. “That, to me, says we actually have a wage problem,” Springstead says. “We don’t have a hunger problem. We have this massive, multibillion-dollar charitable food distribution network, and I think we’ve built this American ethos around helping those who are less fortunate with food charity. But why don’t we want everyone to prosper and to have the dignity and resources to make their own food choices?”

Some food banks already go beyond providing meals. Oregon Food Bank, for example, advocates for better policy, including, in recent years, advocating for Oregon’s minimum wage law and tenant protections. “We look at the large systemic issues that impact people who are experiencing hunger, because usually hunger is the symptom of some lack of access to resources, to power, to voice, in their community,” says Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. “It could be education, it could be living wages, healthcare, or affordable housing. These are all building blocks of economic and social justice that aren’t equally distributed.”

“Hunger work is kind of the ultimate great photo op”

But this type of advocacy is relatively rare, says Andrew Fisher, the author of a book called Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, because nonprofits typically don’t want to rock the boat with the corporate donors that provide both food and money—but are also often necessarily the targets of campaigns to fix the underlying causes of hunger. Large food companies and supermarket chains donate food for several reasons—it’s good PR, they can get tax write-offs, and it reduces the cost of getting rid of food that they might otherwise have sent to landfill. “Hunger work is kind of the ultimate great photo op—it positions companies as caring, and it’s totally nonthreatening,” he says. “There’s no social change involved in this.”

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[Food banks] get a lot of money from supermarkets, whose interests are keeping wages low.”

But companies that rely on low wages in their business models, unsurprisingly, may not want to support nonprofits that are actively fighting for higher wages. Walmart, which committed $2 billion in 2010 to “help end hunger,” primarily through in-kind donations of food, is known for hiring part-time workers and fighting off unions. By one estimate, in 2017, around 200,000 Walmart employees received federal assistance through the SNAP program.

“[Food banks] get a lot of money from Walmart, they get a lot of money from corporate America, and they get a lot of money from supermarkets, whose interests are keeping wages low, so they don’t want to go down that path,” Fisher says. Even the Oregon Food Bank, in an earlier campaign to raise the minimum wage, ended up temporarily upsetting Safeway, which had been a large donor.

But Morgan, who became CEO in 2012, says that the organization was able to successfully navigate supporting the state’s new minimum wage law in 2016. “When we took a position on minimum wage, we very thoughtfully and proactively reached out to the grocery stores and said, look, we cannot sit this one out, because what people earn is absolutely a driver for whether or not they end up in a food pantry line,” she says. “But let’s talk about how we can take this position.” The food bank didn’t lose any of its donors, though Morgan says that she understands why food banks believe that advocacy is difficult to do.

Trying to put food banks out of business

Feeding America, for its part, hasn’t advocated for a higher minimum wage. But it says that improving financial security is a priority for the organization. “We believe that people need to have food today, and that work will continue, but that we also believe it’s important to think about how to end hunger in the long term, and we know it will take more than food to end hunger,” says Erica Greeley, vice president of the Ending Hunger programs at Feeding America.

We know it will take more than food to end hunger.”

The organization studies how its member food banks go beyond providing food—28 offer job training programs, for example—and works with external researchers to study the most effective ways to improve financial security. Often, Greeley says, combining food donations with other services makes everything more effective; job training, for example, provides more long-term benefit when it also comes with food. The learnings from this research will be shared with the full network. “We’re seeing a huge increase in this space in terms of food bank interest,” she says.

To reach the goal of ending hunger, the companies that support anti-hunger organizations may also have to think differently. Fisher says that companies should start by addressing the challenges in their own business models that contribute to the problem, including low wages. When Fisher previously worked with a small food nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, a local supermarket that had supported the organization eventually announced that it was going to use that money to raise its own employees’ wages instead. “It was a disappointment, but I support that kind of approach,” he says. Donations make the most sense after a company is handling its own business responsibly.

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Morgan, from Oregon Food Bank, says that her organization is ultimately “trying to put ourselves out of business.” She argues that as food banks meet daily needs for food now, they can also bring people together to build the community needed to make larger political changes, whether at a local level or in state or federal law. “Once you have that power, you can work on the systems change,” she says. She believes that an end to hunger is possible. “I’d like to think this will happen in my lifetime. I believe deep in my soul that we really can build communities that never experience hunger, and that the heart of building communities that never experiencing hunger is about building community connections.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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