2.21.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 10

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 10: The Charity Myth

Summary:

Volunteer-run charity groups, despite their good works and extreme efforts, cannot be as effective as government in addressing social needs.  Food pantries and soup kitchens can perhaps prevent outright starvation, but do not have the capacity or resources to solve the problem of food insecurity.

Fundraisers aimed at "solving hunger" are pervasive, and perpetuate the idea that if we all donate a few cans or a few dollars no one will go hungry.  (I am personally guilty of this.)  In reality, that tens of millions of US residents are going hungry represents a failing of government.  many volunteer efforts do more to make volunteers feel good about themselves than to solve any more pressing social ills.  Such is the case when celebrities spend a few hours volunteering in soup kitchens during the holidays.

Food banks that supply community-level feeding operations at churches and the like serve as warehouses for both donated foods and those provided by the government through TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program).  On the other end of the scale, independent operations feed from their own pockets but do a poor job of coordinating efforts among groups.  "[P]utting a band-aid on a problem is better than bleeding to death," but it allows stop-gap measures to be viewed as permanent solutions.

As of 2007, many food pantries were so understocked that they were forced to begin rationing food.  They cannot keep up with rising food costs combined with reduced federal benefits, mo natter how hard they work.  Even during its most prolific times, Feeding America (the country's largest network of food banks) was able to amass only about 4% of the food that would be needed to feed all hungry Americans.  "The fact is, charity is doing the government's job, and unsuccessfully."

Government can feed people more economically and efficiently than charity, but the public doesn't believe that.  They also don't know that food charities receive as much as half of their resources from government.  And while government programs have an overhead of about 15%, that of charity food bank operations can be much higher.  But messaging from many sources perpetuates the idea that charities can get the job done and, thus, that additional government resources are unnecessary.  These organizations, which are perfectly positioned to educate the public and apply pressure on government, instead tend to ignore hunger's root causes and let government off the hook.

Discussion:

I personally fell for the charity trap, and not long ago.  In the winter of 2014 I organized a canned food drive.  Our local Second Harvest food bank - whose motto is "together we can solve hunger" - was asking for donations of frozen turkeys, and I was looking for a way to rally the vegan community to contribute without violating our ethics.  I couldn't stomach the idea of people going hungry during the holidays.

I think many of us who are empathetic and compassionate can't stand by and wait for government to solve the problem.  So we find ways to help hungry people TODAY, RIGHT NOW.  They cannot wait.  Not for a week or a month, much less the years that it takes to effect systemic change.  And we chip in to these stopgap measures, because watching people suffer in our own communities is too much to bear.  We get a little ego boost in helping out, and afterward we can sleep a little better - and what's wrong with that?  Nothing!  And plenty is right with it... as long as we don't fall for the idea that "together we can solve hunger" doesn't include government intervention.

What did my canned food drive efforts do, really?  Perhaps a few more families had a few more cans of high quality beans, and that's something.  To a hungry person, a meal is an invaluable ticket to getting through the next few hours of the day.  But in the end it really is just putting a tiny bandage on a mortal wound.

And so, I reject the notion that addressing hunger is an either / or proposition.  We don't need ONLY charity feeding organizations - this chapter makes a strong case that they don't have the capacity to "solve hunger" no matter what they claim or how hard they work.  As does the reality of the hungry people in every community.  We don't need ONLY better government programs - at least until the system is changed, we will need stopgaps.  In no uncertain terms, we need both.

Ideally, we will continue to feed the people that are hungry today, right now while simultaneously applying pressure on policymakers.  They cannot be allowed on the local, state, or federal levels to make us believe that it is the work of individuals or communities alone to ensure that people are fed.  Fortunately, Second Harvest does encourage people to advocate on a policy level.  As an organization working on both ends of the problem, they are a good group to support if you have the means to do so.

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