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Food banks, once humble distributors of excess food thrown off by supermarkets and manufacturers, have become corporate enablers of the industrial food system, according to one longtime food activist.
Amid a historic recession and food prices rising faster than wages, the number of people served by food banks in America rose by 46 percent between 2006 and 2010. But behind the stacked boxes and eager volunteers is what author Andy Fisher calls an unholy alliance between food banks and corporations, many of whom earn big tax credits and glowing PR for donating money and food to anti-hunger groups.
It gets worse, he says: The country’s largest food banks are governed by boards dominated by corporations, including Fortune 500 industrial food companies like Walmart, ConAgra, and major grocery chains. As many as a quarter of the board members at major food banks come from Fortune 500 or Global 500 companies, Fisher found.
“These food banks are not grassroots, led by pantry volunteers, but are very much linked to corporate America,” says Fisher, the founder and leader of the Community Food Security Coalition, who writes about food banks in his forthcoming book, Hunger, Inc.
He adds that of the top 25 corporate donors to food banks, he considers “a third are good corporate citizens, a third are OK, and a third are scoundrels,” where “corporate and social responsibility is lacking.”
Fisher comes to his observations with intimate knowledge of the anti-hunger efforts in the United States. His Community Food Security Coalition was credited with spearheading efforts to link healthy, local food with underserved neighborhoods before its dissolution a few years ago. Since then, he’s been working on food security issues in his own community, Portland, OR, and writing. This includes his current foray into the sticky world of corporations fighting hunger.
As an example, he points to Walmart, which reports donating approximately $2 billion worth of food and money to anti-hunger groups, including food banks, annually. At the same time, the global retailer pays its sales associates an average hourly rate of $8.81, a wage that drives many employees to collect nutrition assistance and visit food pantries. A study released earlier this year found that in Wisconsin, Walmart’s low wages end up costing taxpayers upwards of $900,000 per year in state government assistance for impoverished employees—that's per store.
Fisher says many food banks, beholden to corporations like Walmart, whose executives sit on many a board of directors, are silent about potentially divisive political issues, like raising the minimum wage, providing affordable housing, job training programs, or other government programs. In researching his book, Fisher found fewer than 10 out of 200 food banks engaged in what he calls “progressive policy work, over and above food stamps.”
But with a battle raging on Capitol Hill between anti-hunger advocates and conservatives who want to slash the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to the tune of $40 billion, even that issue could be a third rail at some food banks.
“Anti-hunger groups are beholden to Walmart and these corporations,” Fisher says. “They don’t want to step out of line or risk losing their political ‘neutrality.’ But most of all, they’re afraid of losing their food.”