While 70 to 100 million Americans donate to food charities every year, the anti-hunger movement has remained stagnant for more than 20 years, said activist and author Andrew Fisher. In his talk on Thursday, Fisher had students consider what happens beyond donating to food charities and discussed how the U.S. emergency food system perpetuates hunger. 

With over 25 years of experience working in the anti-hunger field, Fisher published his book “Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups” last April on the tangle between food charity and corporate interests.

The emergency food system and fight against hunger has become “a national pastime,” said Fisher, rather than an effective means to end hunger in our community. 

“Food banks end hunger for today, … but don’t address the underlying causes that led that  family to be hungry in the first place,” he explained. In a nation that is far from suffering a food shortage, hunger is a symptom of poverty, “and when we don’t link food distribution to addressing the underlying causes, we’re perpetuating the system.”

Food charity became prominent in the 1980s in response to a deep recession and massive unemployment. Civic associations, churches and unions came together to create food banks and pantries to alleviate families’ suffering. However, these initiatives were only meant to be temporary — hence the term “emergency food system,” explained Fisher. 

Instead, the culture of food banks grew, and not only did food charity became institutionalized, it became a “seemingly permanent part of our society linked to every civic association: schools, workplaces and sporting events,” said Fisher. 

As of this year, 200 food banks (large storehouse distributors) and 60,000 independent food pantries and kitchens exist in the U.S., and they serve 40 million people  4 billion meals a year, according to Fisher. The first food insecurity survey by the United States Department of Agriculture, taken in 1995, showed that 12 percent of households faced low food security. In 2018, that percentage remains the same, despite the entrenchment of food charity efforts.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name of the U.S. federal food stamps program, costs $66 billion annually, according to Fisher. SNAP gives an average of $1.40 per meal to support low-wage families and individuals, but Fisher asked the audience to consider where that money goes. 

According to Fisher, the money trail shows an incredibly important relationship between the food industry and food poverty. For example, in 2012, one sixth of Kraft Food’s sales came from SNAP benefits, and in 2014 Walmart redeemed 18 percent of SNAP funds, or $13 billion. In 2011, $6 billion of SNAP, or 10 percent, went toward the sugar-sweetened beverage industry, said Fisher. 

When the government wants to decrease SNAP dependency, these corporations in the food industry lobby against it, explained Fisher. “Food banking has become big business,” with parties relying on poverty to maintain profits, he said.  

Even proposals of SNAP reform, such as the restriction of sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food, have been condemned and prevented by the grocery industry, said Fisher. 

Some corporations themselves perpetuate food poverty, Fisher said, pointing to Walmart as an example. From 2010 to 2015, Walmart set up food banks in their stores for their employees, 13.5 percent of whom received aid, to improve their reputation as an employer. Yet while they committed $2 billion into anti-hunger causes, Fisher said, Walmart also profited from SNAP benefits, receiving more SNAP funds than any other company. 

Only a handful of food banks advocate for social progress like higher minimum wages, said Fisher; attempts at activism are often blocked by board members. These board members often work for Fortune 1000 companies; Fisher’s investigation found that 22 percent of food bank board members work for those companies. 

Fisher also calls for emergency food innovation. He highlighted small organizations that have implemented progress on small scales, such as eliminating junk food from individual food banks and changing groups’ missions from hunger-relief to healthy living. Food groups, such as Foodlink in Rochester, New York, work with local farmers to provide fresh options and support local agriculture and economy, and the Center for Good Food Purchasing is working with 20 cities to commit school and government provisions to food produced by workers who are paid well. 

Food banking should be about relationships, Fisher concluded — helping people navigate social services and getting out of poverty. 

Most importantly, he argued, “Food needs to be considered a human right.” 

The event was organized by Sharon Cai ’18, recipient of the Brenda Meehan Social Justice in Action Grant.