Nobody deserves to go hungry. In the US there is wide cultural and political agreement on this principle, even among those who fully embrace the American mythology of self-made individuals who pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Especially when it comes to children, wherever they may be, allowing them to suffer hunger is considered an unforgivable sin that stains our contemporary civilization.
Beyond this general understanding, actions and policy to eradicate hunger - both nationally and internationally - vary enormously. When it is time to act on one’s outrage, ideas and values about the role of the government, personal responsibility, and the effectiveness of different interventions inevitably clash. Should the government support private efforts to avoid the worst for those who cannot afford to buy food, or should it rather intervene in the functioning of food production and distribution, the job market, wages, housing, healthcare, and access to education, among other factors? When it comes to international aid, should the government buy surplus crops from national farmers and then ship them to the areas where food is needed, or should it rather invest money in supporting the development of agriculture in those areas, allowing local farmers to make a living? Is the main goal charity or social justice? Should we address symptoms or deal with the root causes?
The debate can get heated, as researcher and policy advocate Andrew Fisher shows in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. He boldly states: “Charity depoliticizes hunger, rendering it an issue for personal, not public, action.” Although the author acknowledges the crucial role of anti-hunger initiatives such as food banks and soup kitchens, he believes that they risk focusing exclusively on emergency measures, rather than dealing with the underlying problems causing individuals and families to experience food insecurity. Fisher provocatively muses that “by not coupling short-term hunger relief with structural reform, anti-hunger leaders have reinforced the false notion that hunger can be solved through charity, while diminishing our collective ability to make the deeper reforms.”
The author is familiar with the generosity and passion of the volunteers and activists that participate in all sorts of anti-hunger initiatives, and he admits that most of them are also very supportive of long-term structural change. However, he accuses the boards of directors of the various organizations of getting too close to big food business. “The anti-hunger movement chose to build an alliance with corporate America. The business community provided the movement with money, political capital and food donations in exchange for positive publicity and a de facto (although at times explicit) commitment not to oppose corporate interest.” This harsh and direct critique is not isolated, but is rather part of a larger movement that examines the impact of corporate philanthropy in concealing the responsibilities that corporations themselves may have in causing the problems they try to assuage with donations, as my colleague at The New School Erica Kohl-Arena discusses in her book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty.
Big Hunger also examines the issue of food waste, which was recently the topic of the Zero Waste Food conference organized by The New School and the Institute of Culinary Education. Fisher fears that an excessive focus on reducing waste by redirecting food to charity may end up hiding important dynamics: “The charitable food system exists at the intersection of waste and want. Driven by the inefficiencies of the supply chain, it was invented as a morally preferable alternative to throwing away ‘Perfectly good food.” Nevertheless, we need to remember that wasted food is not only an ethical disgrace, but also an environmental, social, and economic one, which we need to address systemically if we want to move toward a sustainable model of circular economy.
Hunger in the US, the role and activities of food banks, as well as the strategies behind them are very complex issues, which deserve reflection and careful consideration. For this reason on May 15th we are launching the new free online open course Invisible Hunger: Food Insecurity and Food Banks, developed together with the Food Bank for New York City. Anybody can enroll. We hope this becomes a tool for concerned citizens to learn more about these important topics, especially if they are already personally involved in donating or volunteering in food banks, pantries, or soup kitchens. Above all, we expect that the course will stimulate more people to engage with hunger at a deeper and more direct level, maybe starting with charity and activism to then shifting towards policy and politics. We believe that both aspects are both fundamental to ensure a better future for those who are not sure where their next meal is coming from.