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. 



Blue Islands in a Sea of red: A Few Reflections from spring travels

What better place for a talk than in a food bank warehouse?

What better place for a talk than in a food bank warehouse?

This spring I spent my time talking about Big Hunger in blue islands floating in a sea of red: in places such as Warren, Ohio; Pittsburgh, PA; Detroit, MI; Morgantown, WV; Fresno CA; Stockton, CA; Tulare County, CA; Carrboro, NC; Hendersonville, NC; and Columbia SC.

Here are a few insights:

lake to river.jpg

Youngstown, Ohio: I hadn’t been back to my hometown for about a decade. While downtown is recovering from its 30 year economic doldrums, with new stores, hotels, and even condos, the rest of the city is a shell of what I remember: vast stretches of empty lots, boarded up homes, only one supermarket in the city, and an endless array of dollar stores. Yet there were signs of resilience and rebirth. The Lake to River Cooperative is an inviting meeting space and store, where one can grab a healthy lunch and buy local produce. In nearby Warren,  the Trumbull County Neighborhood Partnership deployed a Community Food Projects planning grant to create a Community Food Security strategic plan for the city of 40,000, which suffers from a 35% poverty rate. Interestingly, Trumbull County is one place which flipped from blue to red in the 2016 election, for the first time since 1972.

You know times are tough in Youngstown when even the predatory lenders can't make it.

You know times are tough in Youngstown when even the predatory lenders can't make it.

North Carolina: The hunger industrial complex is alive and kicking in NC. Smithfield Foods, now owned by a Chinese firm that is the largest pork producer in the world, lost a nuisance lawsuit to residents near one of its hog CAFOs, who complained about the impacts of the manure lagoon on their health. This lawsuit, with 25 similar ones pending, brought to the public attention the horrific health impacts that hog factories have on rural communities, in which millions of gallons of hog manure fester in outdoor lagoons and are sprayed onto fields, poisoning nearby residents with ammonia and methane. In a classic case of environmental racism, the majority of residents around hog farms in NC tend to be African Americans and Latinos, according to a UNC study.  To improve its image and dispose of its overproduction, Smithfield Farms has been donating tens of thousands of pounds of pork products to food banks around the country.

smithfield pigs.jpeg
Hog manure lagoon

Hog manure lagoon

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Are food banks just doing their job and acquiring food wherever they can to feed the nation’s poorest residents? Or are they complicit in whitewashing and perpetuating environmental racism? Should food banks apply ethical standards in accepting food and money?

Killer views of the Sierras and orange orchards from Tulare  Foodlink

Killer views of the Sierras and orange orchards from Tulare  Foodlink

Fresno and Tulare County, CA: I gave two talks in the San Joaquin Valley, America’s fruit and nut basket: one at Fresno State University and another at Tulare Foodlink. These counties are among the poorest and hungriest counties in the state, with high degree of health disparities. Fresno has the highest poverty rate in the state at 25.6% with Tulare County next with 25.2%. Great wealth and power inequalities exist between the impoverished, many of which are farmworkers, and corporate farms.  These power relations also transfer over to the emergency food system. For example, one Tulare County food pantry that serves some of the most impoverished residents in the County allegedly received a load of extremely poor quality food from their local food bank, prompting them to call the food bank to ask  “Is this the best that we deserve?”  They knew that other food pantries in better-off communities, that were more politically connected were receiving high quality food from the food bank. The quality of the food given to the powerless and marginalized persons communicates to what degree they are valued, and treated as equals to evreyone else in society.




taking big soda out of snap

The Bipartisan Policy Center's recently released report "Leading with Nutrition" provides a compelling blueprint for enhancing SNAP's nutrition purpose. Its core recommendations include:

  • Eliminating sugar sweetened beverages from the program
  • Establishing dietary quality as a core objective of SNAP
  • Incentivizing fruits and vegetables
  • Authorizing USDA to collect store-level data on SNAP expenditures
  • Strengthening retailer standards
  • Strengthening SNAP-Ed

The hunger and industry lobbying groups have opposed the recommendations in this report. 

Food Research and Action Center: "Restrictions... stigmatiz[e] beneficiaries and throw[ing] sand in the gears of this very successful program."

The American Beverage Association: "While we disagree with this report's recommendations on beverages, America's beverage companies recognize we have a role to play in improving public health. That's why we remain committed to comprehensive actions to help cut sugar consumption in the American diet by ensuring consumers have a broad portfolio of products to choose from."

In "Soda Politics" Marion Nestle and in Big Hunger, we both document how the soda industry and the food industry are key funders of the Food Research Action Center (FRAC).  One key way in which this happens is through FRAC's annual gala, sponsored by dozens of food industry heavyweights. Check out the program from the 2017 event below to see how FRAC's Big Gulp cup runneth over with toxic charity. 

FRAC sponsors 2017.jpg

The unholy alliance with the food industry has been key to protecting SNAP in the latest Farm Bill. Yet, I can not stop wondering: is protecting the status quo the best we can do as a movement: to ensure the slow death of the impoverished through diabetes in order to avert their immediate starvation? Do we not have a bolder vision and goals we are seeking to implement?  Are we complicit as a movement in these public health crises? 







Rad Food Rescue


Along Colorado’s Front Range, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the three most prominent communities just couldn’t be more different.

Denver is the epicenter of the New West, the broad-shouldered city in the process of rapid gentrification, and where roughly one third of the population is Latino.

Ninety minutes to the south, Colorado Springs has deep conservative roots, “a playground for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians.” The US Air Force Academy is located just outside of town.

Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs


Two hours north of “the Springs,” home to Buddhists, Bohemians, and bicyclists, Boulder is a very white and affluent community, where the natural food industry plays a strong role in the local economy.

Last month, I had the privilege to speak at events in Denver and Colorado Springs, which were sponsored by or included presenters from the Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs Food Rescue organizations (BFR, DFR and CSFR). These groups exist independently of each other but share a common lineage, outlook, and programming.

During the two afternoons I spent with these groups, my understanding of what it meant to rescue food was rendered unsalvageable by conversations with the staff from these groups. To me, the term “food rescue” has always evoked the image of volunteers driving around in a van picking up leftovers from a glitzy event or wilting lettuce from the local Safeway, to drop them off at a homeless shelter. It’s apolitical, logistical, and superficial.

These three groups do pick up excess food from local supermarkets, such as Whole Foods and Sprouts. And in their typically eco-Colorado way, they do much of their deliveries on bicycle.  But it’s what they do- or don't do- with the food that makes them so radically different than your average food recovery group.

First off, almost all of what they pick up is fresh and healthy. Turner Wyatt, the executive director of Denver Food Rescue notes that 85% of their distribution is produce and 99% perishable.

Turner Wyatt, DFR

Turner Wyatt, DFR

All three groups distribute the food to pickup sites located in low-income neighborhoods, through “no-cost grocery programs” (similar to social supermarkets in the UK). There is no distinction made between volunteer and recipient, and the very communities that they benefit also operate the programs. In some cases, community members also handle the food pick-up.  

Zac Chapman, CSFR

Zac Chapman, CSFR

Zac Chapman, the director of the Colorado Springs Food Rescue group acknowledges that the purpose of the no cost grocery programs is not to reduce hunger, but to build health equity. Before working in a community, CSFR starts out by seeking to understand how health inequities affect the neighborhood, by engaging in dialogues with local residents and leaders. Their partnerships, programs, and hires all flow from that dialogue.

Hayden Dansky, BFR

Hayden Dansky, BFR

Like his colleagues in Boulder and Denver, Zac believes that the typical model of a non-profit parachuting into a community must be replaced by partnerships that build community power. Turner echoes this sentiment, believing that every charity is a toxic charity, and the power to change itself lies within every community’s abilities. He sees DFR’s role as one of bridge-building to food businesses to provide legitimacy and logistics support. DFR also plays an important role in fostering the capacity of community groups to safely and effectively distribute the food.

Similarly, Zac, Turner, and Hayden Dansky, their Boulder counterpart, make a clear and emphatic distinction between no cost grocery programs and food pantries. To them, pantries are not located in communities where they are most needed. Their volunteers don’t speak the language of the participants. They often require documents that the immigrant or refugee participants do not possess. And they manifest a top down toxic style of charity with uneven power relations between recipient and volunteers.    

Zac acknowledges that “food rescue” is a misnomer for the community organizing, equity-oriented work that they do. It only represents the mechanics, not the heart and soul of what they do. He expects that Colorado Springs Food Rescue will roll out a new identity by 2019. 

Indicative of this broader direction, the three groups host an annual Food Forward Summit. The next one takes place in late April in Denver and will focus on food and gentrification. It is billed as an “un-conference,” which like their other work, seeks to break down the conventional conference model of elite speakers dumping information onto a community audience. This year’s meeting will focus on the intersection of food and gentrification, a hot topic in the rapidly growing Front Range communities.

DFR's new bike-powered grocery delivery service

DFR's new bike-powered grocery delivery service

Why did these three groups evolve in this direction? It helps to understand that Denver and Colorado Springs were born from Boulder’s experience.  Until last year, Colorado Springs used Boulder Food Rescue as its fiscal sponsor. Staff at Denver Food Rescue worked in Boulder, before starting their own organization. And Boulder came out of a very organic process in 2011, the product of a group of friends living together in a communal house called the Radish. They started in the same way that many food recovery groups begin: by noticing that supermarkets throw out a lot of edible food and there was a lot of need in the community. Soon they were serving meals in the park to the homeless community. The attendees were surprised that the program organizers actually shared the meal with them and inquired about their needs. Noone had treated them with such respect and dignity.  That revelation helped Hayden and colleagues to gain a better understanding of the organizing power of food, of how it could serve as a tool to build relationships and to create more just social structures.

Hayden attributes Boulder’s approach to two factors: the consensual decision making process that the group’s founders learned from living under the same roof in a cooperative house, and the lessons learned from participating in a social justice leadership program at Colorado University.   

Hayden reiterates BFR’s social justice roots, “Most food rescue groups focus on food waste and the false assumption that rescuing food will automatically feed all the hungry people in the world. That doesn’t address what is broken in the system.  Hunger is a symptom of a bigger problem. Food is a tool to do organizing work, but you can’t do a lot of change work if people’s basic needs are not being met.”




comrade Trump Might Just Be on to Something

Anti-hunger groups are aghast at the Trump administration’s proposal to distribute part of SNAP benefits in a “Harvest Box,” comprised of shelf stable items, such as pasta, cereal, canned foods, peanut butter, and boxed milk.  Neither produce nor other perishables would be included. Food bankers are concerned that they would be enlisted in the logistical nightmare of distributing these boxes to 21 million households.


There’s plenty to hate about this proposal. It’s impractical, stigmatizing, mean-spirited, and flies in the face of nutrition advice that encourages greater consumption of produce, just for starters.

These criticisms- as well as the copious articles I have read in the past two days- ignore the fact that USDA already distributes such boxes to 90,000 Native Americans who qualify for SNAP but live in remote areas without access to grocery stores.  The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is a $150 million program, and has been generally moving in the right direction in recent years. The quality of the food has been improving to the extent that it is vastly better than what the average American eats, as measured by the Healthy Eating Index. USDA is required by statute to consult with tribal authorities about the program’s contents and operation. FDPIR has included more culturally appropriate foods, such as blue corn, bison, wild rice, and salmon in the food packages, although USDA still struggles to differentiate among the regional preferences of Indian nations. This sourcing of traditional foods has opened the door for USDA to purchase from Native agricultural enterprises, building wealth for Indian communities.  


Let’s also not forget that USDA, through its procurement arm, USDA Foods, buys hundreds of millions of dollars of commodities for food banks.  It also buys a billion or more dollars of commodities for schools to serve at school meals. It sets standards for which foods can be purchased in the WIC program, or what can be served at school lunch.

 So, let’s be very clear. USDA is already in the business of deciding what poor people- and schoolchildren- eat every day.

Beyond its impractical aspects, the main problem with the Harvest Box proposal is that it singles out poor people and tries to make their lives more miserable and more demeaning through controlling what they eat. Ignoring the cultural, personal and culinary preferences and abilities of 40 million people, it would standardize not just school lunch but family dinner.  It would nourish a lot of resentment.

Many critique the proposal for going too far in the government’s control over what poor people eat.  I argue the converse: it’s not that this proposal goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

If the federal government wants to get deeper into food procurement, beyond the $2 billion it spends on commodities for school lunch, FDPIR and food banks, then let’s go whole hog. Let’s do it for the entire American population, not just SNAP recipients. Let’s really save American taxpayers a big chunk of change rather than mess around with $10 or $20 billion per year. 

Here’s how to do it.

The Trump Administration should nationalize the grocery business. We might actually get some real savings out of doing so. We could shape people’s diets and cut back dramatically on diet-related diseases. They are an enormous drag on our society’s wealth. Diabetes, linked to poor diets, costs society $245 billion annually. Obesity, $190 billion. Heart disease, cancer hundreds of billions more.


If we are going to be a little Soviet, let’s double down and do it up.


The problem isn’t that the Harvest Box circumvents the free market, as Joel Berg of Hunger Free America (whose organization receives millions of dollars in grants from free market icons Pepsi and Walmart) states on NPR. Frankly, it’s that SNAP is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them. Bioethicist Nancy Kass of Johns Hopkins University asks whether our patterns of consumption represent a freedom of choice or a social injustice, and whether government action would be interfering with personal preferences or righting a wrong (Big Hunger p 137).


If Trump wants to save money, we could do so by centralizing decision-making for the public good. Consider what a nationalized grocery industry could do for American health:


·      Food deserts would be eliminated. Grocery stores would be sited based on community need not on a profit motive.

·      Harmful products, such as cigarettes and certain types of low-cost high-alcohol content drinks, would be less available as grocery stores no longer carry them.

·      Community-produced, union-produced, regionally grown and organic foods would be more easily available and more affordable, subsidized given their economic benefits to communities.

·      Conversely, foods that are harmful to the environment or to public health would either no longer be sold or priced in a way to discourage their consumption, with the premiums used to mitigate the damage that they cause. For example, soda would be sold at a price premium that discourages over consumption.

·      The selection of food items would be made more rational. Economists have written about the detrimental effects of having too much choice. Do we really need 200 varieties of soup, or just 40 or 50?


·      Food waste would be reduced by changing how stores purchase and store foods.


·      The pricing structure of foods would be changed such that healthy foods are less expensive.


·      Store layouts would be retooled to incentivize healthy foods, e.g. no more end caps with chips and point of sale displays of candy bars at children’s eye level.


·      Each store would provide services, such as nutrition education, social service outreach, voter registration, health screenings, and more.

It's evident from this list that the grocery industry, in conjunction with the food processing industry, has done grave harm to public health.  Food is much too important to be left to the chaos and inequities of the corporate-controlled "free" market.

Now, I don’t trust the Trump Administration to do anything for the public good, but one never knows what will happen with the continuing influence of his dear friend Vladimir on our elections.