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.