Food Charity as a False Solution to Ending Hunger: Feeding America West MI
Hunger is a major problem around the world and it is no less of an issue in West Michigan. Tens of thousands of people receive some form of food assistance in the Greater Grand Rapids area and the number of people living in poverty is embarrassingly high.
In fact, according to a report released earlier this summer by the Economic Policy Institute, Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap in Michigan. In addition, child poverty has grown in Michigan, according to a 2016 Kids Count report. The report states that:
Child poverty is even higher among minority groups: Forty seven percent of Michigan’s African-American children and 32 of Hispanic children live in poverty.
So how are organizations responding to this issue of poverty and hunger in West Michigan? There are a variety of responses, but most organizations fall under the category of engaging in social services or charity.
One example of the charity model is Feeding America West Michigan. Their website and Facebook page are filled with images and messages about ending hunger, fighting hunger, solving hunger and slashing hunger.
According to the 990 records for the organization, their budget keeps going up and the amount of food they are distributing has increased on an annual basis for more than a decade. When I interviewed the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan in 2013, he got excited about how much more food the organization was giving away. I was puzzled by his response in many ways. However, he then went on to tell me that the new freezer they installed was paid for by Wal-Mart. When I asked him if donations from retail giants came with any strings attached he avoided the question. When I asked him if receiving support from Wal-Mart prevented them from having a critical analysis of the retail giant or making statements to challenge the poverty-level wages they pay, he again remained silent.
False Solutions to Ending Hunger
The exchange I had with the Executive Director from Feeding America West Michigan demonstrates is why a charity based model that addresses hunger will never succeed. The charity-based model that claims to fight hunger is too connected to the very food system that is rooted in profit making, which makes it impossible in this model to actually fight hunger. The food charity model is essentially a false solution to ending hunger and what follows are some of the reasons why it is a false solution.
First, it is important to look at who sits on the Board at Feeding America West Michigan. The president of the board is a representative from Amway, which has no commitment to economic justice. Other organizations represented are Francis Marketing, Inc., Spectrum Health Medical Group, Star Truck Rentals, Inc., the law firm of Warner, Norcross & Judd, Chase Bank, Meijer, Calder Investment Advisors, Inclusive Performance Strategies, Sysco Food Services of Grand Rapids and a few representatives from the non-profit sector. The board of Feeding America West Michigan is essentially a corporate board, which like many non-profits, makes it difficult from them to think outside of operating within a Neoliberal Capitalist model.
A second reason why Feeding American West Michigan embraces a false solution has to do with where they get most of their food from. According to the organization’s website, they list the Top Food Donors in 2015, which is made up of the businesses that see food as a commodity for profit, as opposed to food as a fundamental human right.
A third reason why the food charity model is a false solution is that it doesn’t address the root cause of hunger, which is poverty and the existing economic system we live in. It should come as no surprise that those who make minimum wage or near minimum wage are the very same people who rely on some form of food assistance for food charity. If businesses like Wal-Mart were really interested in food justice, their employees would be paid a living wage, so that they could afford to eat healthy, whole foods. However, Wal-Mart is simply just one manifestation of the pathological economic system we live in, which creates the poverty and thus creates hunger.
Too often food charity agencies want to focus on the individuals and the families who are “in need” instead of looking at the food system which is the real culprit in creating hunger. But entities like Feeding America are unable or unwilling to see the problem through this lens, since organizing under a food justice model would be a radically different approach to how we truly end hunger.
A fourth and final reason that food charity is a false solution has to do with who is making the decision(s) on how to “fight hunger.” Those who are disproportionately involved in organizations like Feeding America West Michigan are well-meaning, economically comfortable, white liberals who want to “help people.” Food Charity is often another manifestation of the White Savior politics, where people want to do good, but fail to look at their own privilege and how their comfort and wealth contributes to other people’s poverty.
It is the problem of a great deal of how we respond to social issues in the culture, which is to have those who hold lots of privilege make the decisions about how to address the problem, which more often than not just ends up perpetuating the problem.
What needs to happen is what most food justice organizations around the globe do, which is to practice food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is essentially means that each community should be able to determine the kind of food system they want, which under food sovereignty would mean that it would be local, just, ecologically sustainable and based on food sharing. (See an article we wrote earlier this year that begins to look at what food justice/food sovereignty might look like.)
I know there is an impulse for us to say that at least Feeding America West Michigan is making sure that people are getting food and not going without. This is an understandable tendency, but one that also relies on false solutions. It will be necessary to have safety nets for people who are experiencing hunger and poverty in the interim while we develop and practice more food sovereignty, but only if those same organizations that are acting as a safety net are also committed to changing the food and economic system which currently is designed to keep a certain amount of people hungry and malnourished.