Antihunger Organization’s Radical Message: ‘Charity Won’t End Hunger’

Is it time for America’s food banks to get more political?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In an age of political polarization, it seems most everyone can agree on the goodness inherent in the act of providing sustenance to a fellow human being in need. But is it time for this age-old act of kindness to get radical?

That question is at the heart of a special report, by Jessica Powers, recently issued by WhyHunger, a nonprofit dedicated to “building a world where everyone has the right to nutritious food.” The organization is the force behind the biannual conference "Closing the Hunger Gap," which attracts hundreds of representatives from food banks and other emergency food programs across the country. Although the total number of attendees represented is a fraction of the estimated 60,500 emergency food providers in the United States, they’re poised to disrupt the food bank system as we know it with a revolutionary message—and the name of their new report is America’s Food Banks Say Charity Won’t End Hunger.

It’s a startling notion for a segment of the nonprofit sector in which the whole idea of charity would seem fundamental to its raison d’être.

“Charity addresses the symptoms of a problem rather than its root causes,” Powers writes in the manifesto-like report. “In the words of author Jon Poppendieck, it releases a ‘moral safety valve,’ enabling the provider to feel as if he or she did a good deed without having to challenge the system that produced inequalities in the first place.”

Social critics have long pointed to the paradox exemplified by the intractable problem of hunger that exists in the “richest country on Earth.” The issue has only been thrown into sharper relief in the wake of the Great Recession and a recovery that has hardly felt like one across most—or even all—racial and socioeconomic groups.

While those working on the front lines to combat the hunger epidemic have been vocal in opposing conservative attacks on federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, emergency food providers as a whole have largely remained above the political fray.

With nearly 70 million Americans estimated to live in households that are food insecure, WhyHunger and its supporters think that needs to change.

Even as the report acknowledges the myriad ways food banks and other emergency food providers have been rethinking and expanding their roles in their communities, whether as “healthcare intervention sites,” by partnering with local farmers, or by breaking ground on community gardens, it argues that “by defining the problem as ‘hunger’ rather than poverty and economic inequality, the solution is largely limited to food distribution.”

“[M]any staff, boards, donors, and Feeding America—the national network of food banks—continue to measure ‘success’ by the number of pounds of food distributed or food waste diverted from landfills,” Powers continues. “This seems counter-intuitive, because success at ending hunger would mean fewer people in need of food in the first place. Charity alone is not working.”

Among the revolutionary changes to the food bank system Powers, WhyHunger, and its supporters are seeking to make is “to transform emergency food to a movement for social justice,” including making “racial justice a top organizational priority” and advocating “alongside economic justice organizations for measures that will end income inequality.”

Whether the nation’s largest and best-funded food banks will heed the call and take up the broader cause of racial and economic justice remains to be seen, but as one conference attendee quoted in the report put it: “I feel like I can never go to another conference again outside of Closing the Hunger Gap, because I’ll just be thinking the whole time that we’re not talking about the right things.”