Kicking the Can: Can SNAP Support More Healthful Diets?



Is SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) doing enough to protect the health of its 42 million recipients?

Food insecurity is a social determinant of health, so programs such as SNAP which alleviate food insecurity through providing funds for food purchases, do indeed improve the health of their recipients. A 2017 study out of Boston found that SNAP recipients spend  $1,400 less on health care than individuals at the same income level.  The assumption is that reduced health care expenditures are linked to better health.

But could SNAP’s nutritional impact be improved?  Low-income populations are at greater risk of diabetes (70%) and hypertension (19%) than the highest income populations in the US.

Two entities on opposite ends of the political spectrum think so.  Let’s consider the merits of their proposals.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s “Healthy Staples” proposal seeks to limit SNAP purchases to only healthful products, such as grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and vitamins. It looks to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program as a model. WIC provides vouchers for high-protein items, infant formula, produce, and healthy cereals as a nutrition supplement for vulnerable women and kids.  Laudable in its goals of decreasing consumption of unhealthy foods, this proposal falls short on a number of different levels, including the following:

-       First, it limits protein sources to legumes only. Most nutritionists agree that a healthy diet can include eggs, low fat dairy, fish, and lean meats. The Mediterranean diet, which this proposal emulates, does include many of these foods. This proposal would require unrealistic changes to the dietary patterns of most SNAP recipients, or even most Americans.

-       The proposal assumes that the SNAP population has more time available to prepare healthy meals than many do. Many SNAP recipients work long hours at multiple jobs, are elderly, disabled, or single parents, or have multiple stressors in their lives which impede them from spending hours cooking every day.

-       The proposal seeks to re-cast SNAP as a supplemental dietary program, as stated in its name. That may have been Congress’ intention, but it does contradict the reality that for many people SNAP represents the vast majority, if not all, of their food budget.  To call it a supplement only works when recipients have additional income with which to purchase food. The proposal does not explain where that additional income will come from.



 On the conservative end of the political spectrum, Maine requested for a second time in February 2017 a waiver of USDA rules to allow them to exclude candy and sugar sweetened beverages from SNAP.  Many anti-hunger advocates had considered this to be a punitive request, given the well-documented antipathy of Governor Le Page for federal nutrition programs. For example, he had threatened to terminate Maine’s participation in SNAP when the Obama Administration denied a similar waiver in 2016.

Last month, USDA denied this waiver request as it has done for similar requests from the states of New York, Minnesota, and Illinois. The Department expressed concerns about the proposal’s administrative costs, burden on small retailers, as well as the lack of clear and meaningful health outcomes that would come from such a restriction. 

Many of these concerns echo those of the food industry. The National Association of Convenience Stores penned a letter to USDA last fall opposing the waiver, stating, “Food retailers would become the frontlines of enforcement, facing added costs and loss of interoperability that would undoubtedly increase error rates.”

These technical concerns echo those of the previous administration (which also denied waiver requests because they felt it would send the wrong message about the ability of poor persons to make healthy choices).

Nonetheless, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue also noted,  “We don't want to be in the business of picking winners and losers among food products in the marketplace, or in passing judgment about the relative benefits of individual food products."  In doing so, he brought to light the fact that USDA has a long-standing role to protect and promote America’s agri-food industry. It sees SNAP as an integral part of stabilizing and supporting the retailing and food production industries. Just as former USDA Secretary Vilsack would famously claim conventional agriculture and organics to be his two sons, and that he would not be able to make a choice between them, Secretary Perdue sees USDA as creating a value-neutral big tent for the food industry.

His statement communicates the following message “Come on in. There’s room enough for y’all to make billions off SNAP. No judgment here.”



It seems likely that USDA will continue to feel some pressure to change the nutritional profile of SNAP. The Bi-Partisan Policy Center will be issuing its recommendations in this matter in March, which most likely will include suggestions to exclude soda. Maine promises to come back with another waiver request, and other states will likely follow suit. For example, the Delaware legislature is currently considering a bill that would move forward a waiver request. And it has long been rumored that the House Agriculture Committee may include provisions that either mandate or incentivize such changes in its version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Despite this pressure, one anonymous West Coast anti-hunger advocate sees a low likelihood that USDA will issue a soda-exclusion waiver. She believes that USDA’s focus on holding down program costs would preclude them from making the program more complicated to administer.  She also notes that most anti-hunger groups would be opposed to such a waiver under the current administration, as it would likely be punitive in nature, given the Trump administration’s antipathy toward the poor. The health impacts of increased poverty from potential SNAP cutbacks, to her, outweigh the risks of continued access to harmful foods and diets from the current program.

Given these factors, perhaps the only way to make SNAP a true nutrition program is to move it under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services. This was attempted and failed in the 1970s, due to opposition from anti-hunger groups, who feared that doing so would break the links to the agriculture industry and result in funding cutbacks. The chance of doing so in the near future is virtually nil. To many anti-hunger groups, SNAP remains one of the last and most important anti-poverty programs in existence. They could only support it becoming a true nutrition program if Congress were to create and fund another major national welfare program, such as universal basic income. That seems a non-starter based on the current composition of the federal government.

So it appears that, for good or for bad, barring effective leadership in Congress, product exclusions in SNAP are stalemated until 2021 or beyond.  Incentives for healthy food may be another matter and subject for a future article.











Corporate Welfare and SNAP in Ohio

Ten percent of Amazon employees in Ohio receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. This factoid has been ping-ponging across the Internet in the past week or two, since the release of an annual report by Policy Matters Ohio, revealing the top 50 employers of SNAP recipients. It’s data that USDA should collect and reveal annually, so we know which big corporations are subsidizing their costs of doing business with public tax dollars.

This story has legs because it shocks. Amazon can afford to pay its workers better, and certainly Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos can afford to share his wealth. Money magazine has identified him as the richest person on the planet, worth over $100 billion. We also think of Amazon as a tech firm, and tech firms typically pay well.  But Amazon is a low-cost retailer, growing its stake in the grocery business. In some ways, it should come as no surprise that its wage practices do not differ all that much from its main competitor, Walmart.

Thirteen and a half percent of Walmart employees in Ohio receive SNAP (13,932 employees and household members divided by the average of 2.02 persons per SNAP household equals 6,897 employees. Walmart reports 51,127 associates in the state). Extrapolated across Walmart’s 1.5 million associates in the U.S., this would indicate that 202,500 Walmart employees (or 409,050 Walmart employees and household members) receive SNAP benefits.  At an average benefit level of $125.99 per person, Walmart employee households receive an estimated $618.4 million in SNAP annually.

Walmart employee reliance on SNAP will likely decrease in 2018, as Walmart increases its starting wages to $11/hour. At this salary, an employee in the average two-person SNAP household working 40 hours per week would no longer be eligible for food stamps. Employees working 36.25 hours or less would however qualify be eligible for SNAP; Walmart considers 32 hours to be full-time employment.

Walmart also redeems a lot of SNAP benefits at the till. In 2014, it admitted to cashing in roughly $13 billion of SNAP, or roughly 18% of the total amount spent on the program.

From "SNAP Feeds Ohio" by Policy Matters Ohio. Ohio-only data.

From "SNAP Feeds Ohio" by Policy Matters Ohio. Ohio-only data.

Let’s be clear. SNAP is both individual and corporate welfare. It remains a vital part of the government’s responsibility to fulfill the right to food to the nation’s most vulnerable. As groups such as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and Food Research Action Center have accurately pointed out, it has played a key role in diminishing food insecurity. 

But when SNAP is used by businesses to avoid having to pay a living wage, when it reduces their cost of doing business, it becomes corporate welfare. Taxpayers subsidize the profits of some of the nation’s largest corporations. It is not just predatory retailers like Walmart and Amazon that feed at the public trough, but as seen in the table below from the Ohio study, much of the food industry. In fact, 30% of the total employees and household members receiving SNAP work at a supermarket or restaurant (excluding big box retailers such as Walmart and Target).

From "SNAP Feeds Ohio" by Policy Matters Ohio. Ohio-only data.

From "SNAP Feeds Ohio" by Policy Matters Ohio. Ohio-only data.

Interestingly, many of these employers who rely on SNAP to bolster their corporate profits have well-established partnerships with anti-hunger groups. In some cases, they (e.g Meijer, Walmart, Kroger) donate excess food to food banks, fund (e.g. Walmart) SNAP advocacy, provide (e.g. Target, Yum Brands – Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, Arby’s, and Subway) general contributions to the anti-hunger cause, or in the case of Wendy’s resist public pressure to accept the Fair Food Code of Conduct and pay farmworkers an extra penny per pound for winter tomatoes.  These contradictions are ones that the mainline anti-hunger groups would prefer to keep out of public view, as they expose the hunger-industrial complex. The answer is not to make sure that SNAP recipients work, as some in Congress suggest. Instead, it is to raise wages and regulate how companies shape part timers' schedules (so workers can piece together multiple part time jobs if desired) so that they can earn a fair living and don't need to receive SNAP in the first place. 



Last week Walmart announced that they will raise the starting wage from $9 per hour to $11 per hour and provide 10 weeks of paid parental leave for full-time workers. They will also provide a one-time bonus averaging $400 for employees not eligible for a wage increase. Union of Food and Commercial Workers organizers point out that hourly wages for most workers will remain the same.

While Walmart has claimed that they are able to do so because of the recent tax cut, more prosaic reasons are likely: competition and good organizing.

  •  Target recently raised its starting wage to $11 per hour with a commitment to $15 per hour in 2020.
  • Since the launch of OUR Walmart’s (profiled in Big Hunger) campaign for $15 and full-time, Walmart has raised wages from the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour to $11 an hour. This move is especially important in the South, where most states follow the federal minimum wage.

OUR Walmart’s work was also essential in gaining paid family leave, albeit only for full time employees, as well.

According to Eddie Iny, Campaigns Director at OUR Walmart,  “In June 2017, with your support, OUR Walmart and supporters delivered over 100,000 signatures to Walmart Headquarters last year calling for the change to Walmart’s Paid Leave Policy.  The changes directly address the issues OUR Walmart, PL+US and others have raised: adding paternity coverage, adoptive parent benefits and parity with the policy provided to Walmart executives.“

These gains will undoubtedly improve the food security of many of Walmart’s 1.5 million associates. The ability of labor organizers to score these victories is all the more impressive given that no food bank nor major anti-hunger group, with the exception of WhyHunger, contributed in a meaningful way to making them happen.

Imagine what could be accomplished if Labor and Hunger stood together to fight for solutions that combined food security and economic justice!



Feeding America Loses its Third Leader in a Decade




On January 5, 2018 the Feeding America (FA) Board of Directors announced that its CEO Diana Aviv had resigned immediately for personal reasons. Ms. Aviv had been at Feeding America for two years. Previously, she had run the Independent Sector, a coalition of grantmakers and grantseekers. She was Feeding America’s third leader in the past ten years.

Ms. Aviv accomplished many positive changes at Feeding America during her short stint there, including:

  • Championing the need to address systemic issues related to poverty in order to end hunger
  • Enhancing the organization’s focus on health promotion through creating regional produce cooperatives.
  • Taking stances on policies and issues of the day, such as the Affordable Care Act repeal, tax reform, and Charlottesville protests, that they might not have taken prior to her arrival.

According to various food bankers, Ms. Aviv’s departure is not a repudiation of this new direction.  While the next CEO will certainly guide the organization’s direction, strong external forces, such as funders, are pushing Feeding America toward a greater focus on health and innovation.

As someone who has spent some time following Feeding America’s evolution (chronicled in Chapter 2 of Big Hunger), I encourage the organization’s Board of Directors to hire a leader who will take advantage of the following opportunities:

  • To change FA’s metrics and incentives away from promoting food charity toward activities that “shorten the line” and address the underlying causes of poverty.
  • To build its capacity to mobilize and take direction from a significant percentage of its constituents for meaningful policy advocacy to reduce hunger.
  • To fully address racial equity within the emergency food system in terms of leadership, and power dynamics between food banks, pantries and “clients.”
  • To stop threats to the nation’s entitlement programs, especially SNAP, in the next Farm Bill and beyond.
  • To reduce its conflict of interest from partnering with those corporations whose interests are antithetical to the organization’s mission (43% of its funding in 2016 came from corporate donations and promotions).
  • To better recognize and support the community building, economic development and food systems activities of food banks on a par with their food distribution activities.
  • To build on its current health focus by not only flooding the system with produce but also rejecting junk food from all manufacturers and retailers.
  • To modernize the structure of the organization in order to build its capacity to take direction from the grassroots while broadening its appeal to the next generation of leaders.
  • To embrace and lead an internal and public dialogue about the future of the emergency food system.

Feeding America’s next leader will have their work cut out for them. They will face a network of 200 food banks with extreme diversity in size, capacity, politics and strategic direction. As a membership organization, Feeding America is highly constrained in its ability to get out front of its members and provide leadership. It has some but not a lot of tools by which to incentivize food banks to follow its lead to create a much more effective anti-hunger movement.

Any new leader will need the Board’s leadership in restructuring the organization to make it more effective, sustainable, and appealing to a new generation of donors and activists. Otherwise, the organization will go the way of the United Way-- a distributor of corporate largesse and waste, at best irrelevant, at worst an impediment to the right to food in the US. 

The UK Part III: Analysis and Trends

The future of food banking in Britain remains quite uncertain. Here are some thoughts on how the situation compares to the US, and some ruminations on what the future holds.

·      Measurement. Unlike the US and Canada, Britain does not measure food insecurity. The End Hunger UK campaign is working with MP Emma Lewell-Buck to gain passage of legislation that would establish a national food insecurity measurement. Having this baseline of information will be useful to assess the scope of the problem. However, it will likely be a few years before a measurement is put in place and baseline data is gathered.


·      Food waste. Unlike the US and Canada, Britain does not have extensive connection between food processors and retailers and food banks. There exist multiple competing entities – the Felix Project, FareShare, Real Junk Food Project, Company and Community Shops, that collect wasted food and distribute them to charities or sell them to the public through social supermarkets or pay as you feel cafes. It was quite inspiring to see advocates deliberately point out that the answers to food waste and food security were different things, as compared to the States, where they are typically conflated.

Real Junk Food Project's Social Supermarket in Pudsey, England

Real Junk Food Project's Social Supermarket in Pudsey, England

·      Hunger Industrial Complex. The relationships between food banks and Big Food and Agriculture are starting to take shape. FareShare is partnering with Coke in a holiday cause marketing partnership. Interestingly, Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in the country and one that is well-known for its abusive labor practices (similar to Walmart), has partnered with these two non-profits to promote sales of turkeys, cookies and other products through contributing a small percentage of sales to Trussell Trust and FareShare.

·      Stigma. Unlike the US, food banks are not normalized in the UK. Many people do not understand what they are, how they work, or what they provide. A theater troupe has even put on a play to educate the public about the trials and tribulations of people who rely on food banks. Many anti-hunger advocates, even those operating food banks, are outraged that food banks exist in as wealthy a nation as Britain. Food banks are caught between a growing demand for charitable food because of government austerity policies and a powerful aversion to the institutionalization of the emergency food system, which they fear would further encourage the shrinking of the government role in providing or the right to food.

WW II Era Poster

WW II Era Poster

·      Economic Crisis. The economy is humming along at near full employment, but food bank usage has soared in recent years according to Garry Lemon, the Communications Director for Trussell Trust. Lemon remains concerned that a recession with a corresponding spike in unemployment would overwhelm food banks, in part because Tory policies have slashed the safety net for the unemployed (and others). Brexit looms on the horizon for early 2019, and many analysts are expecting it to lead to decreases in GDP and a recession.

·      Food banks, Trump, and Brexit. In both the UK and the US, neoliberal policies that shrunk the role of the social safety net led to the explosion of food banking. In the US, it is not a stretch to say that anti-hunger advocates contributed to the election of Trump. In Rust Belt communities, they failed to address the loss of manufacturing jobs and the middle class wages that they provided. Instead, they offered two undesirable alternatives: food stamps and food banks, both of which are stigmatizing. As a result, many Rust Belt communities like my home county of Trumbull OH voted red for the first time in 44 years. In the UK, food banks are symbols of the economic dis-ease and insecurity felt as the Tory government slashes social programs. This insecurity was felt most strongly among those who supported Brexit: the less educated older and poorer voters. Perhaps not so ironically, this cohort also is an important part of Trump’s base. 


Putting the genie back in the bottle

Unlike Scotland, the English food advocates I met did not seem to think eliminating food banks in England was immediately feasible. The former director of the Trussell Trust was famously quoted, to much consternation, as saying that he wanted to establish a food bank in every town. The organization has backed off that vision, and is in a leadership transition right now. Garry Lemon, the newly hired communications director told me that he’d like to see food banks turned into community-based venues for people to gain skills and access services they need to leave poverty. But that’s his own personal vision, not the official line for the organization.

The future of food banking in Britain is uncertain and is heavily dependent on government policy and the leadership of key NGOs.


Under an expansion scenario:

The rollout of universal credit causes more acute poverty. Brexit results in economic contraction, and a sharp rise in unemployment. Britain imports some 30% of the value of its food; Brexit also causes the price of food to increase dramatically due to a weakened pound and potential trade barriers. Food banks continue to expand and institutionalize. All of these factors place more demands on food banks, which must adapt and expand their capacity. FareShare expands its food waste collection capacity with help from the Global Food Banking Network, and it begins to distribute surplus food into Trussell Trust and some independent food banks. Trussell Trust adjusts its model, encouraging sites to acquire refrigeration units so they can distribute perishable foods from FareShare. The Tory government increases its complicity with food banks, funding infrastructure, as they see food banks to be a relatively inexpensive way to address a growing food security crisis. Food banks increasingly come to resemble a North American model, further integrated into Tory social policy.


A contraction model

The Labor Party returns to power and reverses Tory social policy. Data on food insecurity is collected and released. The British public becomes outraged at the scale of the hunger problem and demands policy changes. Scotland is successful in gaining an effective end to food banking. Wales and Northern Ireland as other devolved nations  seek to repeat Scotland's successes. In England, the Trussell Trust announces its intention to downsize its food banking operations, setting a strategic goal of closing 50% of food banks within 5 years.  


Moving in a different direction

In a few years, the public has donor fatigue and its support for food banks slowly diminishes. The lessons of the progressive experiments in Scotland to bend down the food banking curve begin to be implemented in England. Trussell Trust begins to shift its food banking model toward a community food center model, based on the work of Community Food Centres of Canada. Its food banks take on more food system type activities, promote healthy eating, social capital, and policy advocacy. It continues to distribute free food but within the context of a more comprehensive approach.


The UK Part II: The Rise of Food Banks


Since 2010, there has been an incredible explosion of food banking in the UK. While structural economic issues including stagnating wages and unstable employment have increased food poverty, the rise of food banks has been in large measure a response to need generated by the Tory government’s (Conservative Party) austerity initiatives. Welfare program reforms and punitive sanctions (in which welfare recipients are kicked off benefits for months at a time for not meeting cumbersome program requirements) have been key factors in driving up food insecurity and forcing people into food banks. (One nomenclature thing—UK food banks are roughly equivalent to US food pantries. They don’t have the large warehouse food banks as we do in the States with some exceptions as will be described below).

The rise of food banking is highly politicized. The media, the Labor Party, and anti-hunger advocates perceive it to be a consequence of cutbacks in the current Conservative Party government. When a Tory Member of Parliament (MP) attends the opening of a food bank, it often engenders enormous outrage. The liberal media and advocates see it as a collusion between the non-profit sector and the conservative government to shirk its responsibility to the poor. Tory MPs have been known to praise the growth of food banks, as an example of Britain’s compassionate nature, and have even called it “uplifting.”

The Conservative government has streamlined multiple welfare programs (such as unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and old age pensions) into a single program, called universal credits (UC). While UC was intended to address some legitimate issues, its roll out in parts of Britain has been enormously problematic, as beneficiaries are made to wait at least five weeks- and sometimes two or three months – to receive their checks, with no retroactive pay. As a result, there is great fear that landlords will evict many tenants this winter, causing a surge of homelessness. In addition, the housing portion of UC payments will now be made directly to recipients rather than to landlords, with many concerned that doing so will lead to increased homelessness, as recipients prioritize other expenditures over housing.

The conservative media for its part tends to call out food banks as enabling the “undeserving poor”, those it calls the scroungers and skivvers (freeloaders), to avoid a hard day’s work.

Types of Food Banks

The number of food banks in the UK is a political flashpoint, as evidence of the impact of austerity on the British public. Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network found some two thousand food banks in the country. Two thirds of British food banks are linked to the Trussell Trust, a Christian organization, which collects an upfront fee of roughly $2,000 per affiliate, and a smaller annual fee.  I was able to visit a closed Trussell Trust food bank in the town of Salford, just outside Manchester. The basic model works as follows:

Average Food Parcel at Trussell Trust food bank in Salford

Average Food Parcel at Trussell Trust food bank in Salford

·      Recipients must get a voucher from a health care provider, social service agency or other similar entity attesting to their need for surplus food. They can only get three vouchers in a six-month period (although Trussell Trust staff have said that as long as there is food available they will not turn anyone away, especially given the dramatic rise in demand). Each voucher is good for a three-day supply of food, based on the household size. The purpose of this voucher is to verify the individual’s need, ensure that they do not become dependent on the food banking system, and to some degree assure donors that their clients are not freeloaders.


·      Individuals coming into food banks often chat with volunteers about their needs, and get directed to other services that can help address the broader issues in their lives. Social service agencies will in some cases be in attendance to help direct clients to other services.

Trussell Trust Food Bank, Salford (These bins are ubiquitous)

Trussell Trust Food Bank, Salford (These bins are ubiquitous)

·      Clients have limited choice over what they receive. Volunteers who run the food banks will often honor requests based on dietary preferences/ needs.  Clients receive pre-sorted bags of food, grounded in rough nutrition standards. There are variations of the standard food parcel, for homeless persons or for those who can only heat up water but don’t have stoves. Cans of baked beans seem to be the dominant item. The food package I viewed has a fair amount of cookies and other sweets in them, which volunteers perceive to be nice treats.

North Paddington Food Bank food supply

North Paddington Food Bank food supply

·      The food is donated by community members, and tends to be all pre-packaged or canned. Most food banks do not have refrigeration or the ability to handle perishables. Major supermarkets have bins in which shoppers can place their purchases on an on-going basis. Trussell has agreements with major supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury to run campaigns once a year in which the stores will write a check for 20% of the value of the food collected. Clearly, these food drives are an inefficient way of raising food, given that donors are paying retail prices. But, they do create a framework in which donations are directed to local need.   

About one third of the food banks are outside of the TT network, some of which are linked together through the Independent Food Aid Network. Each food bank operates differently. Most require vouchers. Some do not, preferring to serve all persons and not creating further hoops for families in crisis to jump through. Some are tied to specific religions, as with Muslim foodbanks in the heavily immigrant town of Bradford in the northern part of England (Maddy Powers of York University documented that Muslim participation in food banks has been quite limited due to strong familial ties and the powerful stigma associated with patronizing them).


I went to the North Paddington Foodbank, located in a community center in an immigrant-rich London neighborhood. It ran in a very similar fashion to a TT food bank, providing bags of canned food donated by individuals, and requiring a voucher. What impressed me however was the attention that the director of the food bank, Tara Osman, provided to as many of the 60+ recipients that came in the door within a two-hour period as possible. She sat down with each of them to understand their situation and provided them with guidance on how to navigate their problems. In addition, a debt counselor was on location to provide financial counseling to the clients. 

The UK Part I: Scottish inspiration


Admit it. When I say Scotland, you think of beautiful scenery, golf courses, bagpipes, castles, the Loch Ness monster, guys in kilts, Braveheart (Mel Gibson in a kilt), and maybe a referendum to split off from the UK. Scottish food brings to mind deep fried Mars bars and haggis (sheep stomachs filled with sheep heart and other vegetarian delights). 


Well, get this. Scotland is at the cutting edge of food policy. I had the opportunity in early November to meet with food policy leaders and discovered that they are far ahead of our thinking in the U.S.

Following a UK-wide surge of food banks (see next blog post) over the past 7 years, the Scottish government and leading NGOs Nourish Scotland and Menu for Change (part of Oxfam UK) among others have taken some very interesting steps:

In 2015, the Scottish government commissioned a working group on food poverty to make recommendations to the government on future actions. It issued a report in June 2016, entitled “ Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland.” “The Dignity Report,” proposed that the solution to food insecurity be grounded in a right to food approach, and that the government seek to meet the UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by 2030.

Most importantly, the report lays the groundwork for moving away from food banking. It asks, “ How can society’s response to food insecurity, and especially hunger, be grounded in dignity?” The report goes on to explicitly exclude emergency food aid from a dignified anti-hunger approach: “the right to food is understood as a matter of justice rather than charity.”  It lays out four core principles to a dignified approach to food insecurity:

·      People who have direct experience with food insecurity must have a seat at the table in running programs and centers related to food security;

·      A dignified system is one which recognizes the social and transformative value of food to the community;

·      Impoverished persons should have opportunities to contribute through volunteering, producing food, learning new skills, or sharing their existing skills.

·      Impoverished persons should ensure that as far as possible people are able to choose what they eat.

Finally, the working group recommended that the Scottish government only fund groups that “demonstrate how its approach promotes dignity and is helping to transition away from emergency food aid as the primary response.” The Scottish government has moved forward with this recommendation.

People's Palace in Glasgow

People's Palace in Glasgow

The Dignity report is part of a compelling narrative in Scotland – that everyone should lead a decent life and that the government has a central role in guaranteeing that decency. There are some great examples of how the government is supporting these efforts in civil society:

·      A network of 43 community cafes exists in Edinburgh, some  neighborhood-based and others supporting specific sectors of society, such as autistic children. The National Health Service provides funding to support the network that links these cafes, as well as many other projects that build social capital.

·      The Scottish government funds organizations to transition away from a charitable approach through its £1 million per year Fair Food Transformation Fund. It gives grant of £20,000 per year and up.

·      The National Lottery supports Menu for Change in leading an action-learning project in three Scottish communities to assess the effectiveness of community-based strategies to end food insecurity.

·      Through the support of the faith community, the Poverty Truth Commission cultivates the leadership of impoverished persons to speak up about their lives as well as to mentor civil servants about the realities of living in poverty. One of their accomplishments was to convince the National Health Service to offer a free hotline for individuals needing to speak to them about their benefits rather than charging them 24 pence per minute. One Poverty Truth Commissioner that I met said it had cost her £8 (about $10) for a phone call!

The Scottish context has been inspirational in its desire to close the Pandora’s box of food banking. I note a real urgency in the tone of advocates, as they remain fearful that food banks could become a permanent feature of the Scottish landscape. They see their existence as undermining human dignity and the government’s responsibility for ensuring the right to food.  Advocates, the government and even food bankers are looking for an exit strategy to ensure that people’s food needs are met in a sustainable and dignified way.

Moving into 2018, the Scottish government is moving forward with a Good Food Nation Bill. This cross-cutting piece of legislation includes numerous policy prescriptions and would codify the right to food in Scottish law. It would establish a principle of sustainability into law, as well as create a citizen commission to promote transparency and community involvement.