Reflections on Capital Area Food Bank's No Junk Food Policy

 

In her recent article, Pound Foolish, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  the former CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank, Nancy Roman writes about her experiences convincing manufacturers not to donate unhealthy foods to the food bank. She also discusses how the organization reframed its evaluation indicators away from just pounds distributed to:

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“We now measure the following: pounds of produce distributed per person; pounds of wellness food distributed; wellness pounds donated by retailers; wellness pounds ordered by partners; and vegetable consumption among students and families, to gauge the success of our school-based markets.”

It is wonderful to see such an article discussing this critical issue. I applaud CAFB and Ms. Roman for inverting the power relations between the food industry and food banks, demonstrating that food banks are not beggars, but providing a service to food manufacturers by taking their food off their hands. The food industry receives many things for their excess food: reduced garbage dumping costs, tax credits, earned media, and the ability to continue with their business model without confronting the challenging moral dilemma of throwing out edible food.

It has long been my contention both that food banks need to turn the tables on the food industry to stop taking their garbage, as well as to shift away from measuring their poundage as an indicator of their accomplishments. From my perspective, poundage is a measurement of a logistical success but a strategic failure to prevent hunger in the first place.

CAFB’s new indicators are a step in the right direction. I agree it is better to be counting how much kale rather than the number of Coke bottles you give away. At least CAFB, like most food banks, is not touting the distribution of toxic foods as proof of its fight against hunger.  

Yet, these new metrics don’t challenge the fundamental contradiction of food banking: that you can’t food bank your way out of hunger. Food charity is necessary in 2017, but far from a sufficient approach. Until the food banking industry embraces this contradiction in its programming and moves toward fundamentally changing the way it does business away from a transactional approach, it will never solve the hunger problem, but only cause collateral damage to the dignity of the poor and our collective ability to establish food as a human right.

On one hand, reducing the distribution of junk foods to the impoverished can only contribute to improving their health, reducing their medical bills and allow them to live healthy and productive lives. On the other hand, just measuring success in terms of good food distributed does not really get at the crux of the problem. If the old adage that you get what you measure is accurate, then feeding the vegetable need is still feeding the need. It is still a medical model, treating hunger with doses of albeit healthier food, rather than going upstream to prevent hunger in the first place. Food banks with their enormous resources and outreach capacity (46 million clients and 100 million volunteers and donors per year) can and should be doing much more.

As much as I admire Capital Area Food Bank’s refusal to accept and distribute soda and sheet cakes in the District of Columbia, it is a partial answer begging for systemic action. During a recent visit to Baltimore where I spoke at Johns Hopkins University, I was told by multiple sources that the Maryland Food Bank (which serves the entire state except for Prince George’s County), has seen a dramatic rise in the amount of junk foods it is being offered by local food industry actors. Like a river blocked in one place, the water – or sugar sweetened beverages in this case- simply flows around the blockage, making its way downstream into the refrigerators of food bank clients.

Instead we need structural solutions to reduce the over-production and dumping of disease-producing foods on the impoverished. Feeding America is the best entity that can work with the food industry and food banks to develop a coordinated refusal to accept these foods. Likewise, it is high time we eliminate the tax credit that the food industry receives for donating unhealthy foods, such as sugar sweetened beverages. Tax credits for toxic foods is simply bad public policy.

Reflections from the Road October 2017

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Tacoma Washington was the site for the third iteration of the Closing the Hunger Gap conference. The largest one to date, this event brought together 600 food bankers and others to discuss how to move from charity to solidarity.  Having attended all three of these meetings, I have seen hat over time attendees are taking on meatier questions about the very model of food charity. While four years ago they were discussing the side programs that food banks operate in economic development or food production, they are now talking about the inherent racism of food banks and how that oppression can be addressed. They discussed the class and racial disconnect between food pantry/food bank employees and boards and their clients.  One thread throughout the conference was whether anti-hunger groups should take money from hunger-causing corporations such as Walmart. Farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen was clearest in her urging of groups to stand up to Walmart and collectively refuse their grants. Malik Yakini gave a rousing speech about the roots of hunger in oppression and the capitalist economy: He noted: "You can’t be anti-hunger and pro-capitalism.”

Each of the major university systems in California (Cal State, community colleges and Univ. of Calif.) have an advocate working to reduce student hunger. They are engaging in some very sophisticated and high-level action at the campus and statewide levels, including facilitating student enrollment in CalFresh (SNAP).

East Coast

I had the good fortune to meet two amazing Witnesses to Hunger: Tianna Gaines from Philadelphia and Kim Hart in New Haven. These women are powerful advocates for improving the well-being of families living in poverty. Kim emphasized the importance of living wage jobs over being on SNAP or having to rely on food charity. “I could get a job at McDonalds but would still need assistance.”

 

Kim Hart

Kim Hart

 

Check out the New England Food Vision. It lays out a picture for how the region could produce half of its food by 2060 while ensuring the right to food. Its co-author, Brian Donohue and I gave a joint talk in Western Massachusetts for Berkshire Agricultural Ventures.

Brian Donohue expounds on the New England Food Vision, Sheffield MA

Brian Donohue expounds on the New England Food Vision, Sheffield MA

Morocco

Yellow pomegranates for juicing in Casablanca

Yellow pomegranates for juicing in Casablanca

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a dialogue about food security in the Middle East and North Africa hosted by the Hollings Center and the University of Central Florida. Held in Casablanca, Morocco, the dialogue brought together about 25 academics, government officials, businesspersons, and NGO staff from across the US and the Middle East to discuss the most pressing challenges to food security in the region. It was a fascinating lesson to an incredibly complex topic. Some highlights:

§  The region is facing a great demographic shift, as the population will go from 400 million to an estimated billion persons. Simultaneously, the agriculture sector has declined as a share of GDP from 25% to 11% in recent years.

§  Climate change, land degradation, labor shortages, urbanization, and water scarcity (80% of water usage in the region is used by agriculture) are all constraining factors on the ability of the region to grow food for its burgeoning population. By one estimate, agricultural output could decline by 20-40% by 2080 because of climate change.

§  Poor infrastructure has resulted in a loss of up to 40% of food grown in the region.

§  Conflict is integrally linked to food insecurity. In Yemen and Syria, 70-80% of residents are food insecure.

§  Corrupt governments limit the ability of the public sector to be a strong presence for rural and agricultural development.

§  The region is one of the most dependent on food imports of any place in the world, making it more vulnerable to price spikes as seen in the 2007-08 food crisis.

§  The triple burden of food insecurity, obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent in many parts of the region, such as Egypt.

I learned of three very divergent approaches to addressing food insecurity in the region.

§  The World Food Program has developed a school lunch program in Tunisia, based on a Brazilian model to source 30% of the food as locally as possible, starting with neighborhood gardens managed by parents.

§  The High Atlas Foundation works with rural communities in Morocco to develop organic supply chains for produce such as figs, dates, and walnuts for European markets.

§  The Saudi company Almarai has purchased over 17,000 acres of land in Arizona and California to produce water-thirsty alfalfa to feed dairy cows located in Saudi Arabia. It is part of a broader plan to secure a stable food supply for the heavily-import dependent country. 

An Open Letter to FRAC and Feeding America

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October 2017

Jim Weill                                                                                Diana Aviv

Food Research and Action Center                                    Feeding America

Dear Jim and Diana:

I’ve been to your joint anti-hunger policy conference five or six times over the years. It’s been remarkable how it has grown. Congratulations. It has become a great contribution to the anti-hunger sector, as the prime gathering for leaders in the field to learn what’s happening in DC, gain new skills, and how to affect public policy at multiple levels of government.  I didn’t make it to the 2016 event, as I was in DC the week before for a federal grant panel, and couldn’t squeeze in an extra trip. I heard that it was much better than previous events, as it focused on a broader set of issues than in the past.

Here’s an idea for how to make it even better.

Open it up.

I’m sure your evaluations must have brought this up, but frankly, the event has been too controlled, too top down. I know you have a lot of issues to cover in a few days. But, as the main gathering of anti-hunger groups, there needs to be more opportunities for sharing and mutual learning. You’ve been leaving a lot of issues off the table over the years. The field would be healthier if there were a forum to discuss them in earnest.

So, here’s my suggestion: Let anti-hunger groups in the field set the agenda, at least partially. At the 20 national conferences that I organized while at the Community Food Security Coalition, a planning committee comprised of staff and Coalition members set the agenda. At least three quarters of the workshops were the result of proposals from attendees (which were reviewed by a group of staff and committee members).

It’s probably too late to put out a request for proposals for workshops for the 2018 event. But it should become a permanent part of events for 2019 and beyond.

For 2018, why not let half a day be dedicated to a modified open space format?

I know it’s hard to do with 1,000 attendees, but there are ways to get attendees to propose sessions before the event and to combine them to fit the number of breakout rooms you have. It’s work, but it’s doable. There are lots of conference planners who could help you with it. I recommend Tim Merry. You’ll find the attendees energized from being able to discuss their most pressing issues.

It’s also a great way to keep the camel’s nose in the tent. After all, the way that you have controlled the agenda so tightly has resulted in blowback. The inability to discuss issues of concern to the hunger movement at your conference led to the creation of the Closing the Hunger Gap conferences, the mini-revolt of the Demeter Network, and frankly my book, Big Hunger. From a purely Machiavellian perspective, opening up the conference to audience leadership is a great pressure valve.

While we’re talking about opening up the conference, I would encourage you to provide more scholarships and opportunities for participation by more people affected by hunger, more food bank clients, food pantry leaders, and SNAP recipients. You both have deep pockets and can make this happen.  The need for greater grassroots participation in these troubled times is paramount.

So, I hope you take this suggestion in earnest, as a constructive critique, that will be a very positive step in building a more resilient and powerful anti-hunger movement.

Sincerely,

Andy Fisher

Big Hunger Success Stories

Since April, I have been traveling across the continent promoting the release of my book, and also seeking to spark a dialogue about how we should direct our efforts as a society toward ending hunger.  I have been in Toronto, Boston, Seattle, Mt. Vernon, WA, Minneapolis, New York City, and Portland, OR.  

I met so many incredible people aligned with this cause, like Smita Narula, who participated as a respondent at a talk at the bookstore collective Bluestockings in NYC. Her powerful insights and passion for protecting food as a human right are influenced by her years fighting against human rights abuses in India. Or Fartun Weli, who works at Isuroon, who has shunned the corporate food pantry model to create a program that better meets the needs of the Somali community in Minneapolis (Profits from book sales from the Minneapolis talk are directed to support Isuroon).

I am also grateful for fellow anti-hunger authors and directors of innovative programs who may not agree with everything in the book—or maybe most of it- but still participated in the events, because they value a dialogue. Jan Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity, and Greg Silverman, of the Westside Campaign Against Hunger in NYC, stand out. The dialogue is what is necessary to create the change.

And I am humbled by the support that friends and colleagues have provided in hosting events (and me), including Ellen Parker of Project Bread, Alison Cohen of WhyHunger, Wayne Roberts, and Nick Saul of Community Food Centres of Canada. Each of them is helping me in significant ways, joining in for interviews, hosting community events, and co-promoting the book. Thank you also to Marion Nestle for listing my book as her "weekend reading", and to Civil Eats, Mark Winne, Robert Egger and others for reviewing the book. Sirius XM Radio and Food Sleuth Radio among others for the opportunity to interview and have in-depth conversations about the book. 

Reflections From the Book Tour

It seems like every time someone introduces me, they refer to Big Hunger as a “brave” or “courageous book.” I don’t see myself as brave or courageous, just willing to tell a story that has been simmering under the surface for many years. 

Some people have attended my book talks at the risk of losing their job. One staffer from a national anti-hunger organization came to see my talk in NYC and explicitly asked me not to tell their boss that they had attended the event.I am encouraged that Big Hunger is providing a public voice to those who have dissented from their organization’s practices.

The response that keeps coming back to me is that the publication of Big Hunger ruffled some feathers. I was aware of the controversial nature of the book when I set out to write it. And that's why I am somewhat surprised by the number of people who work at food rescue or food banking organizations have responded very favorably to Big Hunger

One Denver-based food waste warrior said she felt compelled to email me after only 100 pages into the book because she had to share her experience:

"After working for alternative food organizations for several years and working on a food waste and redistribution study last year, this is the book I would have written.”

I am excited that the book is resonating incredibly well with so many folks across the country.

Finally, while on the tour I learned that Feeding America, the most powerful anti-hunger group and the trade association for the nation’s 200 food banks, is working on its strategic plan. Insiders tell me they are considering whether it should advocate for a higher minimum wage.  This is important because a stagnant minimum wage has been the main reason why food insecurity has not declined in the past 20 years. This change would be a monumental break from Feeding America’s past staying away from controversial policies that address the root causes of hunger. If food banks followed suit, it could provide new and powerful momentum to the cause for a living wage.