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Do Food Drives End Hunger? Feeding America and the Anti-Hunger Industrial Complex

May 15, 2017

This past week, many in Grand Rapids, in my mail was a grocery bag and a card from Feeding America West Michigan. The grocery bag and the card had the same message, that featured cartoon characters that asked the question – Do We Have an Answer to Hunger? The answer was, Yes, It’s in the Bag.

Thousands of households were asked to either fill the bag to stamp out hunger or donate online on May 13th to Feeding America West Michigan. Both of these options are easy, simple and are based on the notion that if we donate food we can solve hunger.

Filling a grocery bag with processed foods will not end hunger, in fact, it is actually a false solution

Feeding America wants us all to believe that hunger can be solved through charity. However, the anti-hunger industrial complex does is to keep our attention focused on the hunger problem without actually pursuing the necessary steps to truly end it. 

We have written about this issue in the past, looking at groups like Kids Food Basket and Feeding America West Michigan. Our analysis has drawn criticism because some people think that you should never challenge charitable groups that are “attempting to do good.” Such a simplistic and naive reaction to any critique of food charity not only seeks to silence any real dialogue around the need to move from food charity to food justice, it prevents us from having to come to terms with the fact that a food charity model will never solve the issues of hunger and poverty. 

Andrew Fisher’s book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, confirms the critique that the anti-hunger industrial complex only ends up perpetuating hunger. The book offers some fresh insight into the anti-hunger industrial complex and makes it clear that food charity is a false solution. One major theme of the book is this:

In both allying themselves with corporate America and not pursuing labor-related issues, anti-hunger advocates tacitly exonerated businesses from their role in foster income inequality and, in various cases, of engaging in practices that perpetuated hunger among their own workers or subcontractors.

This relationship between corporate America and Feeding America provides a clear example of why the anti-hunger industrial complex won’t end hunger and only perpetuates it.

According to Big Hunger, “Feeding America’s income from corporate promotions increased six fold from $3.5 million in 2008 to $20.6 million in 2014 (while other corporate donations went up four fold from $8.7 million to $36.2 million during the same time period).” This shift in the last ten years in significant and demonstrates how the much of the charitable food sector has been hijacked through their relationship with corporate America. Walmart is a prime example of how insidious the anti-hunger industrial complex’s relationship is with powerful corporations.

Walmart benefits from this relationship with Feeding America in many ways. First, the largest global corporation uses its relationship to Feeding America as a public relations stunt, that not only wins over the hearts and minds of consumers, it distracts us from looking at the low wages the company pays. Here is a recent commercial that Walmart and Feeding America are airing on TV stations across the country.

Second, the corporate relationship to the anti-hunger industrial complex is problematic, since so many of the major food commodity corporations occupy seats of the board of directors of many of these charitable food entities, as is evidenced by this list from Fisher’s book.

A third consequence is that many of the major anti-hunger organizations have adopted corporate governance models and pay their CEOs outrageous salaries, as you can see from the data below.

The Feeding America West Michigan CEO receives an annual salary of $118,818, according to their 990 documents from 2015

As Fisher points out in Big Hunger:

The cumulative effect of this anti-hunger industrial complex is that the more moderate organizations, the ones that are more in synch with corporate philanthropy, become wealthier and squeeze out the more progressive organizations. Their approach becomes the dominant paradigm.

Indeed, the approach of Feeding America West Michigan is the dominant paradigm in this community. However, this paradigm is being challenged. Access of West Michigan in recent years is moving the organization away from a food charity model towards a food justice model, by challenging food pantries to shift their focus and look at root causes of hunger in our community. Some food pantries are now offering more fresh produce from local farmers, often through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model.

Another local example that seeks to challenge the food charity model is the work of the Other Way Ministries. This long-time westside organization has run a food pantry for decades, but in recent years they have minimized the amount of unhealthy food they carry and promote more whole foods and fresh produce to those who are food insecure. The Other Way Ministries also make smoothies with people who come to the pantry, offers canning classes and has established its own food co-op.

In addition, the westside organization has a community garden and is partnering with Urban Roots to further develop that garden as a more dynamic mechanism for people to access fresh produce and to learn to grow more of their own food.

Lastly, the Other Way Ministries has been partnering with Gardens for Grand Rapids for the past two years to encourage people to access raised garden beds and news soil at no cost, so that residents in the area can be directly involved in some of their own food production.

These are just a few examples of how traditional food charity organizations have been moving towards a food justice model and are operating outside of the anti-hunger industrial complex to offer real solutions that are not rooted in the corporate/capitalist model.

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