Food Bank Nations

Graham Riches’ “Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity, and the Right” to Food (Routledge, 2018) is the climax of a career researching, writing, and advocating for the right to food, and explaining how food banks undermine that cause. Food Bank Nations looks at the spread of corporate charity through the OECD countries. Riches sees food banks as being at the moral vacuum at the heart of neoliberalism.


The book discusses the role of the Global Foodbanking Network, centered in Chicago and led by former Feeding America staff, has expanded to all 35 OECD countries. This expansion has undermined the right to food in these countries as “indifferent governments deny the [hunger] problem and look the other way, leaving the task of feeding the poor to the redistribution of wasted and surplus food.”

Riches traces the evolution of food banks from its 1967 Phoenix roots through the evolution of Second Harvest, Feeding America, and into international networks such as the European Federation of Foodbanks. He explores the hunger industrial complex in its international context, through the role of the Houston –based Foodbanking Leadership Institute in partnering with multinational companies to extend and expand the capacity of food banks in the international context.

Riches asks invaluable questions about this corporate capture of the right to food: “Who stands to benefit and why from Big Food’s take over of food charity from public welfare?”

Food Bank Nations stands true to Riches’ long-standing belief that it is the role of national governments to ensure the right to food, as enshrined in UN declarations and covenants. He points out the critical role that social movements and coalitions, such as Nourish Scotland and Food Secure Canada have in holding governments’ feet to the fire to ensure that those rights are justiciable.

Food Bank Nations might be a bit on the dense side for non-academics, but I found it highly readable and informative.

What Do Racist Pork and Tariff Man Have in Common?


Should food banks ever turn down food, if it is safe and healthy? Do food banks have an obligation to consider the political implications of accepting food? Or is it their role to accept as much food as possible, within the context of the degree of need in their communities? Should medium and long-term political goals ever outweigh the urgency of short-term feeding needs?

American food banks tend to define themselves as businesses, highly efficient in nature. Feeding America encourages and awards food banks based on their efficiency ratios and the pounds per person in poverty that they distribute. Like any enterprise, they typically seek to do business with as many partners as possible that will help them meet their bottom line (pounds of food distributed).

However, if food banks saw themselves as social change agents, then those partnerships might take on a whole different political context.

 Lets take a look at a couple of these questionable food sources to further explore this issue.



As the nation’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods donates its excess production to a rotating array of food banks, through its Helping Hungry Homes program. Last month, Smithfield made a donation of 42,000 pounds of meat to the Mid South Food Bank in Memphis TN, whose CEO commented, “Smithfield returns to us again this year as an active partner in the fight against hunger.” 

 While Smithfield may be an active partner in the fight against hunger in Memphis, a few hundred miles away in the neighboring state of NC, the company is reviled for the deleterious impacts of its hog waste lagoons on the health of residents adjacent to their hog factory farms.  The company has recently lost three lawsuits by affected residents for its egregious practices. Smithfield’s hog operations were found to disproportionately affect people of color because their lack of political power impedes their ability to challenge these facilities. Senator Cory Booker of NJ commented, “This corporation is outsourcing its pain, its costs, on to poor black people in North Carolina.”

Plain and simple, Smithfield is engaging in environmental racism.  

To recap this situation, food banks are providing reputational cover for Smithfield, allowing it to dispose of its excess production in a way that builds its image as a socially responsible corporation. These food banks then distribute this pork that was produced to the detriment of the health of historically marginalized communities to other marginalized and under-resourced communities.

This situation raises some very serious ethical considerations for food banks. Are they distributing ethically tainted food? With an active campaign against Smithfield to change its practices, should they not foster solidarity between their clients and the affected communities in NC?   Are food banks complicit with environmental racism? It seems that any food bank committed to examining its own practices with an equity lens needs to be considering these kinds of ironies.  

“Tariffs are the greatest”


With the imposition of tariffs by the Trump Administration, many farmers are finding that their sales of agricultural products have slowed as other countries retaliate by not buying or imposing tariffs on them.  As a result, USDA is purchasing $1.2 billion of fruit, nuts, and dairy products to distribute to food banks. These mitigation bonus commodities will quadruple the amount of bonus commodities distributed by USDA in 2017.

 Parenthetically, I have grave doubts about whether TEFAP should even exist. It’s a deep contradiction in terms, establishing a role for the federal government in a system that was created because the government has been abdicating its role in protecting and fulfilling the right to food.

 This dramatic expansion of TEFAP is not without its costs for the emergency food sector. It costs money to move food from producer to consumer, which is why Feeding America has solicited USDA to provide it with cash to cover these costs.  In the absence of these funds, food banks are diverting resources from their more discretionary programs to cover these costs. In one western food bank, leadership has redirected the budgets of social justice programs to focus on what it perceives to be its core mission of food distribution.

The excitement expressed by food banks to take on this flood of Trump tariff foods leads one to wonder whether food banks do not share in the President’s comments of July 24th, “Tariffs are the greatest.” If you measure your success by the weight of the food you distribute, then the Trump Administration has been a core partner of the food banking industry.

 But what is the cost of this ad hoc partnership? We have an administration whose positions are antithetical to the interests of ending hunger, yet which manufactures a crisis through its tariffs, and then purports to resolve it by buying food from affected farmers. The mitigation bonus food is little more than a political football. Does accepting it mean one buys into the administration’s positions? Do food banks enable the administration to pander to a core political constituency? In food banks’ belief that their role is just to accept and distribute as much food as possible, don’t they once more strengthen not just neoliberalism, but also the political hand of a highly regressive administration.

Perhaps I am assuming too much about the intentions of the food banking community, regardless of its political diversity. Perhaps its root interests do indeed lie in the cynical perpetuation of the hunger problem, so that they can continue to exist and grow. Perhaps Tariff Man and his mitigation bonus commodities sit at the heart of the hunger industrial complex. Repudiating his policies and his food are core elements of an exit strategy. I am still waiting for a food bank, even in a blue state, to take on this cause wholeheartedly.   


Finding the Off-Ramp to Charity


America needs an exit strategy.

 We’ve been hearing a lot about America finding the way out of global multilateralism—out of the Paris climate accords, NAFTA, Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

 That’s certainly not the kind of exit strategy we need, nor the kind that I am talking about.

 We need to find a way out of the burgeoning charity-based approach to hunger, i.e. food banking. Feeding America’s goals for food distribution per person in poverty grew from 34 lbs in 2009 to 53 lbs in 2018, according to Josh Lohnes of the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab (whose dissertation on the integration of food banks into the food system will be out shortly) .

 This is the unfortunate reality of food banks: that they are tied to a growth agenda.

 Last month, I had the honor of attending a meeting with the leaders of the top British anti-hunger charities. There was unanimous opposition among the attendees to institutionalizing food banks, which have been in place only for the past eight to ten years.

 Amazingly, the Trussell Trust is in the vanguard of this anti-institutionalization sentiment. A Christian organization, Trussell Trust is responsible for the vast majority of food banks in the UK. It franchises local organizations to manage some 1,200 food banks (food pantries in the US). Just a few short years ago, its former executive director commented that every British community should have a foodbank. Yet, its new executive director Emma Revie has hired a long-time anti-poverty activist from the faith community, Matthew Van Duyvenbode as their chief strategist to develop an exit strategy from food banking


 Many British food poverty activists remain skeptical about whether Trussell will be able to manage this exit, whether it will be able to let go of- or transform its vast network of charities. Complicating this issue is a £20 million grant awarded to Trussell and FareShare, a non-profit food waste distributor, by none other than Walmart (known locally as ASDA).

 Trussell Trust is operating in an increasingly hostile context to food banks, in which Conservative Party members of Parliament are getting called out on social media for holding photo opportunities at food banks, which their very policies led into existence.  And the Scottish government is committed to ending food banking on Scottish soil by funding innovation in community building and providing cash assistance to the impoverished.

 Here in the States, we desperately need an exit strategy from food banking. Not to mention a need for a change in the story, so food banks are seen both as a wellspring of community care AND a product of austerity politics that needs to be reversed. 


 The idea of an exit strategy is not so pie in the sky as some might think. How many times have you said – or heard a food banker say: “I wish I didn’t have to be doing this job.” Or “I am trying to work myself out of business.” The next time you hear someone say so, gently ask them, “What’s your exit strategy?” It will get across the message that if we ever want to bring down our national dependence on charity we need to develop a strategic plan for doing so.

 So, Feeding America: if Trussell Trust can develop an exit strategy for food banking in the UK, even in the face of an impending financial disaster from Brexit, what is America’s?







A Holiday Toast!


 With the end of 2018, I’m declaring the end of the Big Hunger publicity campaign. In the past 20 months, the campaign has taken me to 21 states, Washington DC, two Canadian provinces, Morocco and the UK. I have done 105 talks, 24 radio interviews, 2 TV shows, 8 webinars and podcasts, and written or interviewed for 20 articles.

The book is going into its fourth printing soon.

It feels like enough. While the book wasn’t picked up on by national media (except by the BBC), it never was intended to be a bestseller. Big Hunger and the campaign surrounding it accomplished what they were supposed to: stimulate a discussion about the way we address hunger, about the corporate influence on the anti-hunger movement.

I need a break from book talks. I’m toast.


As I reflect back on the past year and a half, I wanted to convey the lessons that I have learned about the state of the anti-hunger field.

 First, it’s important to qualify that the anti-hunger sector has hardly been monolithic in its response.

 The Good

It’s been a great pleasure to see how various food banks, such as Alameda County, Foodlink, Oregon Food Bank, the Community Food Bank of Southern AZ, Philabundance, and Food Bank of the Southern Tier (NY), are actively searching for the exits to the system in which they’re trapped. Their willingness to engage in a meaningful conversation about the contradictions of this process is inspiring.  I have seen many positive signs of change and openness in the past year and a half.

·      Closing the Hunger Gap, led by WhyHunger has taken shape as a membership organization, led by organizations on the frontlines of anti-hunger work. Their efforts around changing the hunger narrative hold much promise.

·      The national anti-hunger policy conference led by FRAC and Feeding America has evolved to contain very important discussions about hunger and racial equity. They are providing more people with lived experience of hunger scholarships to attend the event.

·      The Trump Administration’s proposal to count participation in SNAP and other social assistance programs as a factor in determining permanent residency has led more anti-hunger groups into the immigration debate. In doing so, they have stepped outside of their nutrition safety zone and into a political realm, which many of them had never ventured.

·      Share Our Strength gave a copy of Big Hunger to all of their Cooking Matters interns. Feeding America invited key leaders of the food bank resistance to present in a widely acclaimed panel at their annual executive director conference.

·      Across the pond, Trussell Trust, the Christian organization that franchises the vast majority of the UK’s food banks, has hired a staffer to develop within a year a plan to close down their 1000+ food banks. I like to think that Big Hunger’s warnings about the dangers of food bank institutionalization scared them into action.

 The Bad

While the food banking field has been taking some small but important steps toward a broader dialogue, the hunger industrial complex thrives. For example,

 ·      Feeding America’s new CEO, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, was the former Global Treasurer of Walmart, Inc. She was the “bean counter of the ill-gotten gains of the company that destroyed rural America,“ in the words of former LA Kitchen executive director Robert Egger. One can only assume that this connection will strengthen the bonds between Walmart and Feeding America, as they pursue their mutual aims of perpetuating the hunger-industrial complex.

·      Along the same lines, Feeding America has refused to take a position on the minimum wage, but instead has committed to studying the solutions to poverty for three years before it decides on a course of action.

·      The soda industry is closing ranks with USDA, as lobbyists court insiders to reject any soda exclusion waivers from the SNAP program.

·      USDA is purchasing some $1.2 billion worth of food from farmers to offset the impacts of Trump’s tariffs on farmers. Their destination: food banks.


 And The Ugly

I have run into many more food banks- as well as the majority of national anti-hunger organizations- that have hid their heads in the sand, fearful of engaging in a dialogue that might legitimize any criticism of their practices. So, they fail to decline invitations to participate as a speaker, send an underling to take notes, or just don’t bother to show up.

 What’s up Next?

Within a few months I hope to announce the launch of a new organization that will seek to implement my vision for the anti-hunger field. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I will be sending out this newsletter on a periodic basis.  Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2019!









The Harvest Box is Dead. Long Live the Harvest Box!

USDA's Harvest Box

USDA's Harvest Box

Like the zombie that just can’t be killed, USDA continues to hold onto the harvest box idea, despite the fact that neither the House nor the Senate Agriculture Committee intend to carry it forward in the farm bill. According to an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, USDA officials are talking with the food waste e-commerce firm FoodMaven about piloting a harvest box type project in the private sector for future adoption by USDA.

Despite FoodMaven's good intentions, this idea is a nightmare of the anti-hunger community's own making, a logical extension of 40 years of food charity. If it's acceptable to hand out $5 billion of surplus food to poor people at food banks, many of whom are undoubtedly SNAP recipients, it should be equally acceptable to distribute few billion dollars more of excess food through SNAP. "Surely, we shouldn’t waste perfectly good food on surplus people through SNAP, even if all they seem to buy is kool aid, Kraft mac ‘n cheese, birthday cakes, and crab legs." Or so goes the racist and classist thought patterns of this crop of USDA leaders.

Food banks have established a model that the Trump administration wants to replicate to make federal nutrition programs as inexpensive, undignified, and unappealing as possible. As an added bonus, the Administration surely wouldn’t mind eliminating the incentives for the food industry to lobby for the SNAP program. It’s strategically brilliant mean-spirited Calvinism (is there any other kind?), with the twofer of dishing up red meat for Trump’s base. The Tyson CAFO chickens have indeed come home to roost. 

Will anyone in the anti-hunger community, much less Feeding America acknowledge that the harvest box idea is a product of their own making, of their own success the past 35 years in developing a dehumanizing but ruthlessly efficient system? 

So what’s the alternative to the harvest box? Circle the wagons and do no harm? We've been doing that, off and on, for the past 25 years or so. Is that really the best we can do as a movement? The anti-hunger establishment has virtually no vision for SNAP beyond maintaining the status quo and ultimately increasing benefits. It's always a matter of dollars, not of program structure, for these Beltway groups.  They ignore the potential for SNAP to be something other than what long time food security activist Hank Herrera calls, a “pass-through intermediary to subsidize the food manufacturers, [resulting in] poor people suffer[ing] and [dying] from the toxic foods the manufacturers provide.” They have lacked the creativity to envision how SNAP might be more effective at creating a more equitable, healthy, and ecologically sustainable society through redirecting its funding away from Walmart, Pepsi, and other such industry behemoths. 

Could in an alternate universe – or the next administration- the harvest box be done in a progressive way? Is there a way to remake the SNAP program so that it is not just a big-time subsidy for Big Food and Big Ag? Can that $60 billion of purchasing power be used to create alternative food systems that do better at reducing poverty, creating jobs, and paying taxes than the current system?

Here’s one idea, whose kinks admittedly are far from worked out.

Let’s offer SNAP recipients the opportunity to purchase a discounted CSA share through a centralized e-commerce platform. Local foods would go into it: fruit, veggies, nuts, eggs, and other healthy products. Individuals could opt into this program; noone would be forced to choose it. However, the price would be at a 50% or more discount, with Medicaid funds subsidizing the program, given its potential impact on reducing health care costs. This program would not be intended to cut the costs of SNAP, but instead would have longer-term beneficial impacts on the vitality of local economies and the health of participants. Starting modestly, this program could get up to one million boxes per year, about twice the amount of the number of households that receive CSA shares currently. 


This effort would build off the successes of the FINI (Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentives) and Fruit and Veggie Prescription programs, centralizing their coordination at the state level, while continuing to utilize community infrastructure for drop offs and outreach, such as schools, child care centers, food pantries, and community centers. Extension agents and state departments of agriculture would be responsible for gaining the participation of local farmers, and helping to build the farmer base needed to implement this program. SNAP-Ed funds would be used to support interactive and innovative nutrition education.

This program would be paired with programs to build the supply of local food through funding beginning farmers efforts, and forgiving college loans to young farmers willing to work in the public interest. Funds would be dedicated to rebuilding regional food system infrastructure, such as packinghouses, food hubs, and delivery through value added and local food promotion grants.

Surely there would be so many more details to be worked out. Maybe FoodMaven can utilize its cutting edge technology to help figure out how to make this idea a reality. 

It’s one small idea for how to transform SNAP to be a greater force for nutrition, job creation, ecological sustainability, and food democracy. It would take a redirection of public policy, joining up agriculture and nutrition programs in support of systems change.  As impractical and inchoate as it might seem, it is a starting point for dialogue about how to better utilize these $60 billion of purchasing power as a force for good.


Coke or Carrots: Improvements in the Healthfulness of Food Charity

mazon report.jpeg


Most food banks are improving the healthfulness of the food that they distribute, yet there is still a long way to go, according to a new study by the anti-hunger funder Mazon.  In “A Tipping Point,” Mazon researchers were able to get every food bank in the Feeding America network to fill out a survey about their food quality policies and procedures. They found that one third of the food distributed by food banks is produce, while one quarter fell into unhealthy food categories, such as salty snacks, pastries, candy and soda. Twenty-five food banks had policies not to distribute unhealthy foods, primarily soda and candy.

Because this groundbreaking report used Feeding America’s “Foods to Encourage” model, to assess food quality, it substantially undercounts the real amount of unhealthy food in the system. Foods to Encourage only counts unhealthy food as being in a specific category such as salty snacks or soda. It does not differentiate between healthy and unhealthy food within other categories, such as cereal. Under this system, all cereals would be counted as healthy, whether they are Grape Nuts or Cap’n Crunch. White rice, white pasta and white bread are considered equally healthful as whole wheat bread or brown rice. The Foods to Encourage framework similarly counts low nutrition (and heavy) veggies such as iceberg lettuce and potatoes the same as more nutritious and lighter spinach or kale.

A Tipping Point discovers that food banks refusing to accept donations of soda or other junk food have not jeopardized donations of healthy foods, as is commonly feared.  Eighty five percent of food banks with healthy food acceptance policies reported that their donations stayed the same or increased. Nonetheless, A Tipping Point does reveal that national donors are most turned off by the imposition of nutrition standards on their food donations.

At the national level, Feeding America has taken important steps in helping food banks to source more produce, such as through the creation of regional produce cooperatives. Reading between the lines, it is evident that Mazon does suggest that this national food bank trade association has historically favored the food industry’s waste disposal strategies over the health of the 46 million persons it serves, by failing to take key measures to staunch the flow of obesogenic and diabetes promoting foods into junk food saturated low income communities. It recommends that Feeding America should  launch a national donor education campaign to promote increased donations of healthy foods; establish a corporate donation policy with regards to food quality and healthfulness; allow food banks to refuse to accept any food from one of Feeding America’s corporate partners; and set nutritional standards to which food banks would be held accountable.  The ability of food banks to invert the power relations between themselves and their corporate donors remains to be seen. It is an important step for food banks to transcend their historic role as a morally acceptable outlet for corporate food waste.   







Community Food Projects Under Threat

The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program (CFP) is under threat. Your help is needed to preserve it in the 2018 Farm Bill!

Unless Congress includes it in the upcoming Farm Bill, CFP will cease to exist. The time to take action to defend CFP and what it has done for hundreds of communities across the nation is now!

Since 2008, CFP has distributed close to $50 million in funding to 200 organizations in 47 states, including the District of Columbia and American Samoa. 



CFP has been a keystone of funding for the community food security/food justice movements since its inception in 1996. It has played an essential role in supporting the growth of the movement, through its focus on community engagement, systems orientation, and experimentation.

The program has so many impacts on low-income communities and family farmers across the country that its return on investment far outstrips its small annual appropriation of $9 million.  In 2016 alone, CFP directly benefitted 233,000 people, 70 per cent of whom were low income. It creates wealth and jobs for small farmers and low-income community members, while stimulating new markets, generating food donations to the hungry, teaching agricultural literacy, providing job training, fostering civic engagement, and transforming communities toward greater sustainability and equity.

Just in terms of job creation alone, the program created 195 jobs in 2016, retained 157 jobs, and indirectly created another 130 jobs. To monetize this service, we can use the well-regarded figure of $30,000 that it costs to create a job. Seen in that light, CFP generated a direct value of $5.9 million. That’s quite an impressive achievement for a program that was never intended to be an employment program.

There are intangible outcomes from CFP as well. Many grantees are applying for the first time to USDA, which is never an easy process. The experience gives them the practice and confidence they need to apply for other programs. Leadership development is another consequence of participation in a CFP grant. In 2016, grantee projects created 367 new leadership roles, 70 per cent of which were filled by people of color and 38 per cent by youth. In these ways, CFP builds the capacity of organizations to secure and manage the resources they need to strengthen their own communities.

If you want to preserve the right of towns, cities, and counties to control their own food destinies, you need to let Congress know that you support CFP and they should too. If you’re not sure who to call, here’s the congressional switchboard number which can connect you to your representative and senators. Time is of the essence. Act now!

To call your Member of Congress:  US Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121

To locate your Member on-line:  U.S. House of Representatives:  U.S. Senate:

Parts of this article were written by Mark Winne and New Entry Sustainable Food Program . Used with permission.