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How to Fight the Anti-Hunger Industrial Complex: An Interview with author Andy Fisher

October 23, 2017

This interview was conducted online with Andy Fisher, author of the recent book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. We have been thinking about some of the analysis from his book over the years, especially as it relates to food justice.

In recent months we have written articles that have offered a critique of both Feeding American West Michigan and the group Kids Food Basket, which are fairly consistent with the analysis that Fisher provides in his book.

On Tuesday, October 25, there is a public lecture by Any Fisher at the Diocese of Grand Rapids 360 S. Division Ave from 7 – 8:30pm. You can find more details at this link

GRIID – What would you say are the main points you make in your book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups?

Andy  The way we address hunger in the US is ineffective and has generated collateral damage to the dignity and health of the poor.

At the heart of this ineffectiveness are the relationships between corporate America and anti-hunger groups. These relationships have been instrumental to solving hunger today, but sell us short in solving hunger for tomorrow, or at a systemic level.

This a time of great change in the anti-hunger community, of groups working toward new goals in different ways. This change needs to be accelerated and institutionalized.

The path forward for the anti-hunger community lies in a new vision grounded in principles of economic justice, health and local economies.

There is a great potential for connecting the anti-hunger community to public health, labor and other sectors to build a much stronger force for progressive politics.

GRIIDIn your book you state: In both allying themselves with corporate America and not pursuing labor-related issues, anti-hunger advocates tacitly exonerated businesses from their role in fostering income inequality and, in various cases, of engaging in practices that perpetuated hunger among their own workers or subcontractors. Can you talk a bit more specifically about how anti-hunger groups exonerate businesses around income inequality?

AndyVarious leading non-profits accept donations from corporations that exploit their workers. These non-profit groups themselves do not engage in substantive advocacy – or in many cases any advocacy on reducing income inequality through policies that impact the bottom line of their corporate donors. For example, Share our Strength works to end childhood hunger. It is in partnership with numerous restaurant chains  and trade associations that are well known for treating their workers poorly and actively fight against raising the tipped minimum wage form $2.13/hour. By taking their funding and promoting them as a partner, SOS essentially gives them their seal of approval that these companies are good corporate citizens when in reality their practices are antithetical to fighting hunger.

GRIID – Would it be fair to say that we have an Anti-Hunger Industrial Complex in this Country? and if so, why?

AndyYes, we do. This complex is made up of anti-hunger groups, USDA and the food industry. Its purpose is to manage hunger rather than eliminate it. Perpetuating the hunger problem allows companies to continue profiting from it through tens of billions of dollars of subsidies in the form of federal government programs, and through appearing to be good corporate citizens – as well as tax breaks and reduced tipping fees. With the support of these companies, non-profits are able to maintain programs that have been inadequate to solve the hunger problem, as well as ensure their own existence and in some cases professional-grade salaries.

GRIID – In West MI, we have Feeding America and Kids Food Basket that have both aligned themselves with corporate America, yet they are often seen as champions in the fight against hunger. Could you talk a bit about why much of the public still sees groups like these as exemplary?

Andy – Because these groups have communicated loudly and insistently that the way to solve hunger is through a charity approach. It has been a core message for almost four decades. Sure, we talk about SNAP and other nutrition programs, but the bulk of the communications is really about charity. This message resonates with the public. It fits into a Right-wing message about shrinking the role of the government, and with liberals as it helps the impoverished. Charity is rooted in the Judeo Christian traditions as well.  Changes to tax policy, wages, labor policy and other issues are more challenging politically. Charitable food makes people feel good, that they can do something to help their community without wading into controversial issues.

GRIID – If you were able to sit down with groups like Kids Food Basket and Feeding America, what would you encourage them to do that does not require them to align with corporate America?

Andy – I don’t know Kids Food Basket.  I would encourage Feeding America to do four basic things:

Encourage food banks to create a strategic plan to fundamentally transform the way they do business  such that in 20 years we are no longer distributing massive amounts of free food to people. Instead food banks are providing food to community-based institutions such as domestic violence and homeless shelters, or using free food as a tool to bring people in to policy and community organizing.

Push for a change in the tax code such that food companies do not receive an incentive for giving away unhealthy foods,such as soda and candy.

Tell their retail and processing partners that they will no longer accept unhealthy foods, such as candy, cakes, sugar sweetened beverages and chips. Encourage and help individual food banks to reject such foods.

Start advocating for a raise in the minimum wage, employee-friendly scheduling, progressive tax policy, and universal health care.

GRIID – Lastly, can you give us some examples of places that are practicing what you advocate for in your book and maybe principles that are necessary for us to move from food charity to food justice?

AndyJust Harvest in Pittsburgh does a yeoman’s job of connecting anti-hunger work to economic justice, and is very active in supporting labor issues. 

Foodlink in Rochester NY has developed successful economic development initiatives, using the food bank’s infrastructure to support local farmers and provide jobs and job training. 

Community Food Centers of Canada is creating a network of a dozen centers that incorporate advocacy. Community building, gardening, food access with free food distribution.

The Oregon Food Bank is training its employees in anti-racism practices, to reduce the oppression inherent in the emergency food system. It is advocating on wages, affordable housing as well as helping rural communities develop their own solutions to food problems. 

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