Catholic Charities invites Andy Fisher, author of Big Hunger the Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, to share his views about food insecurity and poverty Thursday evening, September 6 at Xavier University’s Cintas Center. Local poverty experts will follow with a panel discussion.

In preparation for his visit, the Youngstown, Ohio native talked about challenging traditional approaches for addressing food insecurity.

What makes you an expert on this topic?

I co-founded and ran the main national alliance of groups working on food system change, the Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years. We held a strong belief that the corporate controlled food system marginalized both low-income consumers and family farmers. I helped to gain passage of federal programs that supported communities to develop their own programs to address hunger and food access, such as farm to school, urban gardening, farmers markets and community kitchens. After leaving the coalition, I went on to teach at various universities in Oregon, write Big Hunger, and serve as interim executive director at a gleaning/urban agriculture organization.

What inspired you to write this book?

I saw the need for a dialogue in the anti-hunger sector and the nation at large, about how we reduce hunger. Among my colleagues, there was a lot of grumbling about how anti-hunger groups had aligned themselves with forces that were causing hunger, holding back progress on addressing obesity, and even obstructing farm program reform. Yet, these complaints were not being voiced publicly. There was a lot of division between public health, food system and labor groups on one side and the anti-hunger sector on the other. I saw –
and still see – the potential impact we could have if these fields could be unified. That unity could not be achieved without a dialogue. I recognized that I had an important story to tell, and was in a unique position to tell it.

In your book, you criticize food banks for focusing on growth but isn’t growth a direct response to the need?

Giving away an increasing amount of free food to solve hunger is similar to building bigger highways to reduce congestion. It doesn’t work. Soon the new lanes will be clogged with drivers who had used other options, and now flock to the bigger freeway because it has become the faster option. There is an insatiable need for free food. The Greater Boston Food Bank gives away enough food to meet about 10% of its clients’ food needs. In its plans, it aims to meet one third of its client’ needs, increasing its distribution by three times. Who’s to say it shouldn’t meet 100% of its clients’ food needs, allowing them to spend their precious resources on clothes, housing, or car repairs? And what about all the people who don’t rely on food banks, but are still needy? How big should the charitable food system become? We need to stop and ask ourselves as a nation and within the anti-hunger field this question, and whether the billions of dollars invested in it through private and public dollars wouldn’t be better spent in other more effective and more dignifying ways of bolstering food security. For example, what if food banks spent half of their resources mobilizing their donors, volunteers, and staff to fight for increases to SNAP, the minimum wage, universal health care, and/or affordable housing? Wouldn’t that yield more justice and reduce food insecurity than handing out boxes of surplus food?

Pope Francis states that we have the capacity to feed everyone and unequal access to food is the issue. What are your thoughts?

The Pope has spoken about the devastating effects of poverty and income inequality on societies across the globe. I think we need to take an expansive view of the causes of food insecurity. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen has shown that famines are not caused by a shortage of food, but a lack of entitlements – essentially that households lack access to food through public programs, money, land, or other resources. In the U.S., this lack of access to food is caused by many factors, including stagnating wages (the purchasing power of the minimum wage peaked in 1968), the instability of employment and the difficulties of finding full time employment, shrinking safety net programs, and the poverty premium (the poor pay more for many consumer goods, including food). In addition, the high cost of housing in many urban areas reduces the amount of money the poor have for food purchases. And, medical bills are the number one cause of personal bankruptcies. I would argue that we need to examine our political and economic systems to understand how hunger-causing inequities are baked into the system.

What should the role of charity be in addressing food insecurity?

The 19th century Irish playwright Oscar Wilde said that, “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Charity is not justice, but what a society does when there is no justice. I believe that we should take up Wilde’s challenge to address the root causes of poverty.

However, I am pragmatic. People need to eat three times a day every day. The hungry can’t wait for structural changes to happen in 50 years. In America in 2018, charity has an important place. But the extent to which we rely on charity as a primary strategy to reduce hunger and the way in which we go about providing charity are problematic.

As a Jew, I appreciate the wisdom of Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic scholar. He described a hierarchy of charity that we would do well to follow today. The highest level of charity is to help someone become self-sufficient without them knowing their benefactor. Compare that to modern day charity in which a building is named after a donor, or in the case of food banks, when trucks have Walmart’s logo emblazoned on them. Charity should not be public relations.

As a non-profit executive director, I greatly appreciated the generosity of donors. However, I do think that donors should do more to inform themselves about the anti-hunger causes that they support, to condition their support to the organization undertaking work that addresses the root causes of hunger.

Save the Date

Learn more from Andy Fisher at our Big Hunger presentation starting at 5:30 pm, Thursday, September 6, at Xavier University’s Cintas Center. RSVP at Eventbrite.