The hunger industry: does charity put a Band-Aid on American inequality?

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Alyson Graham raised three children by juggling multiple jobs and making tough choices about what they should go without. For more than 20 years, she made weekly visits to a food pantry, before going to the store to supplement the free groceries using food stamps and whatever money she had left after paying rent and bills.

It was a struggle to put nutritious food on the table.

“I always had two jobs when my kids were growing up, but still couldn’t make ends meet,” said Graham, 51, who worked minimum-wage jobs in call centres, bars and restaurants in Houston. “I couldn’t let the lights or water go off, and there were always other expenses like shoes and books, so I relied on food pantries and frozen food like chicken nuggets to fill them up. The system is so skewed, it’s almost impossible.”

Graham’s story is a typical American story, and one that predates the unprecedented economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Alyson Graham now grows her own fruit and vegetables at the Westbury community garden.

Every month, millions of working folks are forced to choose between rent, bills, healthcare, childcare and food because they are not paid a living wage. According to one measure, 43.5% of Americans were living in poverty or low-income households in 2017, with the latter often just one emergency or missed paycheck away from falling below the poverty line.

Even when the economy is booming, at least one in eight families with children in the world’s so-called richest country do not have reliable access to sufficient nutritious food needed for a healthy active life, according to USDA data collected since the mid-1990s. In times of recession, a fifth or more families have experienced food insecurity, which research shows can cause lifelong damage to a child’s health, education and employment potential.

No matter what the state of the economy, the need for food aid has continued to rise as wages and government assistance have failed to keep up with the cost of living. A third of food-insecure people are not considered poor enough to qualify for government food assistance.

“Food charity has become so normalized, it’s deeply embedded in our cultural and social values. But charity doesn’t address the root causes of food insecurity, rather it perpetuates it,” said Alison Cohen, senior director of programs at WhyHunger, a global nonprofit working to end hunger and advance the human right to nutritious food.

Advocates argue that low wages are key to understanding why so many Americans struggle to afford adequate nutrition, which can only be fixed through major economic and political reforms. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009, which progressive lawmakers such as Senator Bernie Sanders have lambasted as starvation wages that boost the bank balances of billionaire industrialists while costing the taxpayer billions in welfare programs such as food stamps (Snap) and Medicare.

Before the pandemic, almost 80% of households receiving food stamps had at least one worker, and about 31% included two or more workers.

“Food stamps are fundamentally a subsidy to low-wage work which suits big corporations that campaign against a living minimum wage like Walmart,” said Charlotte Spring, a researcher in food and housing insecurity at the University of Calgary.

Not everyone agrees that radical reforms are needed. “We could eliminate hunger in the US by tuning up the tools at our disposal like Snap and tax credits, while we have a conversation about systemic issues and without fundamentally redoing capitalism,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University.

The campaign for a federal $15 minimum wage suffered a major setback after it was removed from Joe Biden’s Covid relief bill. Yet many campaigners argue that even $15 would not be enough in some places to cover all basic costs including food, utilities, rent, childcare and healthcare. Research by the National Low Income Housing Coalition last year showed that full-time workers earning $15 an hour could afford a two-bedroom apartment in only four states: Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia.

Graham covered the rent because the family lived in subsidized housing. But she sacrificed her own health to make sure the children got what they needed. Apart from while being pregnant, she rarely saw a doctor because she didn’t have insurance. A recent survey found that one in eight Americans has reduced food spending to pay for healthcare.

Graham was diagnosed with Grave’s disease – an autoimmune disorder that causes the overproduction of thyroid hormones – after a visit to the emergency room. In 2019, three years after she started her current job in customer services, she was made full time and therefore finally eligible for employee healthcare. Her youngest son had just moved out, so she could afford the $200 monthly plan, and last year, doctors advised surgery to remove her thyroid gland. Graham survived financially thanks to the food pantry and help from relatives, as she hadn’t accrued sufficient paid time off to cover her sick leave.

“I was undiagnosed for years because I couldn’t access preventive healthcare,” said Graham, who now earns $15.50 per hour and grows her own fruit and vegetables at the Westbury community garden. “I can finally survive without the pantry because my kids have gone, but I still don’t have car insurance, that would be a luxury.”

The neighbourhood is classified as a ‘food desert’ – a low-income area with limited access to nutritious food. The nearest grocery store is just over a mile away along a road with a discontinuous sidewalk. Much closer is a gas station where food stamps can buy processed snacks, and the food pantry Graham’s family relied on.

Food charity

The country’s first food bank was established in Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1960s by a retired businessman, who went on to create a national organization that became Feeding America.

The rollout of neoliberalism in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher in the UK) saw a shift away from social policies to tackle systemic problems such as poverty and hunger to an era of promoting deregulation, individual responsibility and global markets as the answer. The role of food charity was promoted as an alternative to government interventions, and food banks proliferated in the 1990s after another wave of austerity measures weakened America’s already weak safety net.

Today, Feeding America is a network of 200 food banks which provides food to about 600,000 pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and schools. It is the second largest US charity, according to Forbes, with a revenue of $3.64bn in the last fiscal year.

Amid the sector’s exponential growth, food banking has come under criticism for failing to tackle the root causes of food hardship. The level of food insecurity for households with children has never fallen below 14% since records began in the mid 1990s.

Critics say the food charity industry has become a key part of the capitalist economy, which is why it shies away from advocating for systemic anti-poverty solutions such as a livable minimum wage and universal healthcare which some corporate donors lobby against.

“Food philanthropy is focused on mitigating rather than ending hunger, because it is connected to capitalism by the hip,” said Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved. “There is so much money to be made in food aid through tax breaks, free publicity, salaried executives, electronic Snap cards … Food banks are expanding rather than trying to put themselves out of business.”

People wait to receive a food bank donation at the Barclays Center sports arena in New York City on 15 May.

Feeding America members distributed 3.5bn pounds of unsold excess food in 2019, of which 70% was classified as healthy. A third came from retailers such as Walmart, Krogers, HEB, Whole Foods and Target, while 29% was donated by farmers and manufacturers.

The government incentivises food donations by offering businesses generous tax breaks and liability protection, claiming that this diverts food waste destined for landfills to needy families.

Critics say this allows – even encourages – the food industry to continue overproducing food which contributes to harmful greenhouse gases. “Food charity feels like a rational response to hunger and food waste, resolving the paradox of scarcity with excess production. It’s the win-win narrative, but ultimately they are two different systemic problems which require distinct systemic responses,” Spring said.

Corporate gains

In the past, food banks were criticized for distributing mostly unhealthy processed food. The quality of food given to struggling Americans has significantly improved over the years, but stale bakery goods, fruits and vegetables past their best and sugary sodas are still found in grocery boxes, the Guardian has found.

“Food banks put a Band-Aid on the problem, so yes, it would be worse if they stopped, and yes, they provide people with more nutritious and fresh food than 20 years ago, but they remain downstream appendages of the food industry and poor people are still being treated as garbage disposal,” said Andy Fisher, author of Big Hunger.

Big business doesn’t just donate to food banks, it plays a critical role in the work they do and don’t do.

Food bank boards are mostly white, and disproportionately made up of representatives of corporate America, while there are few people from labor, anti-poverty groups or the communities they serve, according to research by Fisher. No matter what the state of the economy, a huge racial pay and wealth gap means food insecurity is always worse for Black, brown and Indigenous Americans.

“White supremacy is financed by capitalism which created and enshrined charity as our default response to food insecurity,” said Paul Taylor from FoodShare.

Fisher added: “Who’s at the boardroom table dictates what issues are prioritized, and with mostly white middle-class corporate America represented, you’re not going to find discussions on economic justice and structural inequalities.”

The salaries of food banking executives have also come under scrutiny.

The Guardian reviewed the most recent tax filings of 29 of the biggest food banks and found six figure CEO/director compensation packages ranging from $126,000 to $657,000. The total amount for executive salaries at Feeding America topped $6m, a level reasonable for market norms, according to its advisers. Meanwhile food banks rely on thousands of volunteers and low wage workers.

A spokesperson said Feeding America is “deeply committed” to diversifying its board and last year gave $100m to food banks to increase access to people of color and rural communities. “There’s no way that the charitable food system can solve hunger alone. This is an all-in fight that requires policy interventions, regulatory interventions and public-private partnerships. For this reason, we advocate for policies that increase food access with a keen focus on Snap … Walmart has been a longstanding partner in hunger relief.”

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has deep ties to food assistance.

Walmart is one of Feeding America’s so-called visionary partners – the highest accolade reserved for the most generous donors (others include Starbucks, Jeff Bezos, Conagra, BlackRock and Coca-Cola). Feeding America’s CEO since 2018, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, joined the organization after 13 years as a Walmart executive.

Walmart helps fund Feeding America’s Snap application assistance program, helping food banks get eligible people signed up. The retailer directly benefits from this generous support as it is one of the top – if not the number one beneficiary of Snap – the federal government’s biggest food aid program, worth $55bn in 2019. The USDA does not release retailer-specific Snap sales figures but in 2019 analysts estimated Walmart derived about 4% of its US revenue from Snap dollars. (This doesn’t include non-food items purchased by Snap customers during the same shopping trip.)

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, escorted by Houston Food Bank CEO Brian Greene, tour the facility on 26 February.

Last year, revenue for Walmart US was $341bn. The proportion from Snap may have been even higher given the 40% expansion of Snap during the pandemic, and the online shopping rollout which was initially restricted to Walmart and Amazon.

Some Snap dollars come from its own employees. The company, which recently announced that it would start paying about half of its employees $15 an hour, is one of the top four employers of food stamps and Medicaid recipients in every state, according to a 2020 study by a non-partisan government watchdog.

“There’s a certain amount of public relations in what corporate America does. They [grocery retailers] are key partners who are part of our solution, but also part of the problem … I’m aware of the irony and it’s uncomfortable,” said Mark Brown, CEO of West Houston Assistance Ministries (Wham) food pantry.

A spokesman for Walmart said the company offers education and training opportunities which allows low wage workers to move up the corporate ladder, with more than 75% of store management having started on hourly rates.

“In addition to providing access to employment, Walmart has long provided access to affordable, nutritious food for our customers as well as for our communities through our philanthropic investments. In FY2020, Walmart US donated more than 585m pounds of food, 65% of which was fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats.” The company did not provide details on the tax savings gained.

Some food banks are trying to change.

The Houston food bank is the nation’s largest, serving a region with a million food-insecure residents. It has one of the most racially diverse workforces and boardroom’s in the industry, and last year introduced a $15 minimum wage for permanent staff. The main facility in east Houston is a round-the-clock 308,000 square foot logistical operation, where every day 1,100 or so volunteers work in shifts to sort and repack the food. The food bank distributes more food every year, yet still only meets a fraction of the need, according to Regi Young, chief strategy officer.

Young says the food bank is slowly shifting its model and mindset from measuring success by pounds of food distributed to imagining a world without food banks, which means addressing structural racism and the root causes of poverty. “There’s a benefit to being Switzerland in our messaging, but we have to address the root causes and we’re still grappling with that concept. The organization is willing to change, but we’re not even close yet.”

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