09/20/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Feeding The Hungry: Is Our Charitable Response System Bypassing The Real Discussion That Must Happen?

By being presented with creative, alternative and "dignifying" ways for the hungry poor not to starve to death, we can easily be distracted from facing something urgent and disturbing: the need for an in-depth nation-wide discussion about the underlying causes of hunger as a manifestation of poverty. And how to fix the problem.

This idea became obvious a few months ago as I attended the screening of a documentary Our Daily Bread: Feeding the Hungry in New York City. The film showed how three different faith-based feeding programs had successfully introduced innovative ways to make the experience of being poor and hungry -- and having to rely on food handouts and soup kitchens for survival -- more dignifying. One can only be moved by these laudable acts of charity by well-intentioned organizations and their network of volunteers who all mobilize to provide an immediate response to people in distress.

Nevertheless, as the film concluded I realized that something important had been omitted: at no time were questions raised about "Why are these people hungry" or "What can we do to address the underlying causes of their hunger?" In addition there was no reference to the 50.1 million Americans -- of which 16.7 million are children -- who are food insecure in the world's largest economy! These questions and facts seem essential to me, since there is something dramatically wrong with an economy that systematically generates "left outs," as if this were an inevitable part of its foundational economic system.

While there aren't easy answers to these questions, it is essential for a democratic society to bring this discussion onto everyone's radar screen. We have sufficient elements in hand to get us started. We know for instance that there is a direct correlation between income and hunger; a direct correlation between ethnicities and hunger (hunger affects more Black and Hispanic households proportionally than whites in the U.S.), and between certain social groupings and hunger (for instance single-headed households are more vulnerable and so are households with children under 6).

As we open this discussion, we must introduce the distinction between the need to provide an immediate response to hunger, and the need to fix the problem in a lasting and sustainable way. Creating separate and parallel food distribution and delivery structures for the poor and hungry, carries the inherent risk of exalting a system of charity as if it were the solution to hunger.

Of course it is praiseworthy to make food banks more consumer friendly by modernizing and adding computerized systems, which have the effect of feeding the hungry in a more dignified way. The risk here is that this parallel structure allows our society to drop out of the more difficult discussion of what needs to be done to address the root causes of poverty-based hunger. Without this discussion, we are likely to perpetuate the systemic inequity in our society, indefinitely.

Therefore it's imperative to introduce a societal discussion about concrete actions such as: aligning incomes with the cost of living, making a basic nutritious food basket affordable to all, bringing food and especially fresh food closer to consumers, educating consumers about healthy eating, enforcing existing regulations with the food industry and food businesses in general, promoting local food production, providing safety nets to vulnerable people, expanding food stamps as an entitlement to all vulnerable people (until the underlying causes of these vulnerabilities are systemically addressed). And integrating the food distribution and delivery systems for the affluent and for the poor into a single efficient system for all.
Omitting this discussion means that our society is resisting the opportunity to face the very conditions that are the root causes of hunger and poverty in America. It also means that, as a nation, we have not completed the vision and the mission of our founders, yet.

Poor and hungry people should not be poor and hungry, to start with. Access to food, all the good and healthy food we need, is a basic sacred human right entitlement. We must all be fully integrated into our society and access our food not through hand-outs, but from local stores and markets. This is ultimately how we can all live in a dignifying way.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.