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From Fighting Childhood Hunger to Economic and Racial Justice: A Response to Kids Food Basket Expansion plans

September 13, 2017

Last week it was announced that the non-profit food charity group, Kids Food Basket, was expanding its operation and kicking off a new funding raising component called, Feeding Our Future Campaign.

The announcement received news coverage in all the mainstream commercial news sources as well as community news sources and lots of social media. The narrative put forth was basically the same: 

Kids Food Basket already serves 7,500 children each weekday in three counties with a sack lunch. Through the new fundraising campaign they will be able to provide the same services to up to 15,000 more children in West Michigan.

On the surface, this narrative sounds pretty wonderful. I mean, who could be against feeding children who are hungry? Well, that depends on how you ask the question or if you raise another question – why are so many families in West Michigan experiencing poverty?

I get that people want to do something to respond to child hunger in this community and putting together sack lunches is good form of triage when responding to larger systemic issues. However, if we continue to do the same thing and even do more of it, without having a strategy for dealing with poverty and economic inequality, then we will continue to make more and more sack lunches for children in this community.

In Andrew Fisher’s book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, he makes the argument that the anti-hunger industrial complex ends up only perpetuating more 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.

Kids Food Basket is a popular response to child hunger, precisely because it does not question poverty and economic inequality. One way you can determine this is based upon why sits on the board of directors and which companies are major supporters of the food charity project. 

The corporations that are major donors to Kids Food Basket; like Amway, Bank of America, Tyson and Walmart, all are involved in lobbying for economic policies that serve their own interests and/or provide funding to organizations that promote anti-union, privatization or other economic austerity measures that contribute to more and more families experiencing poverty.

Even the current Feeding Our Future fundraising campaign involves people who are part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, people like Hank Meijer, Peter & Joan Secchia, Mike & Sue Jandernoa and David & Carol Van Andel. These people are millionaires or billionaires that have contributed to the wealth gap in Grand Rapids, which is the worst in the state

So What is the Alternative?

What most Food Justice organizations recognize is that the issue of hunger is systemic and therefore need solutions that strategically combat this kind of systemic injustice. There are never any easy or simple answers when dealing with hunger and poverty, but here are a few suggestions of what we know have worked historically.

  • It would be important for any and all groups who do food triage work to acknowledge that just providing food assistance on a regular basis does not solve the problem. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t practice mutual aid and assist people in a time of crisis. We absolutely should practice mutual aid when we can. However, it is not enough to just provide charity, we must work towards justice.
  • Once Kids Food Basket can acknowledge that hunger is a much larger and systemic economic and racial problem, then they can with other like-minded groups begin to develop multi-pronged strategies to fight for economic and racial justice. 
  • Ending partnerships with corporations and families which are part of the power structure
  • Promoting and participating in a Living Wage campaign at the city/county level. Currently, many groups around the country are calling for a $15 minimum wage. However, a Living Wage would go further, because it would force us to have a much more substantial conversation about economic policy.
  • Wealth re-distribution in the form of reparations. Those families, communities and corporations which have exploited workers and communities for decades, should be required to pay back the communities, families and individuals they have exploited.
  • Organizations like Kids Food Basket need to adopt clear racial justice policies that recognize historical racism and how it currently in manifested in West Michigan. How is it that the people who pick most of our food in West Michigan, migrant farmworkers, have a high rate of poverty?
  • Part of the plan for the Kids Food Basket expansion is to grow food for their sack lunch program. What about allowing people to come to this newly acquired land and grow food together, specifically the families that are benefiting from the sack lunch program. Provide people with the skills, transportation and child care so they could chose to be involved in producing their own food. This could also be done by supporting more programs in neighborhoods that are experiencing poverty, by assisting those neighborhoods with urban food production, if that is something they want to do.

These are only just a few suggestions, but I believe that many more creative and powerful ideas could surface if we changed the narrative around how to respond to hunger from food charity to food justice.

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