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:


“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.