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?