Book Review: "Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food" by Graham Riches

Reviewed by Joel Berg

Until the mid-1800s, the most common way of fighting fires in American cities were bucket brigades, the epitome of the type of volunteer-driven civic virtue for which the new nation prided itself. Unfortunately, bucket brigades largely didn’t work – city after city burned to a crisp. It was only after municipal governments took charge of firefighting – by creating paid fire departments, replacing buckets with modern fire trucks, and enacting fire codes – that U.S. cities no longer burned down entirely.

We should have learned that, in modern industrial societies, only government has the scope, resources, and, yes, legitimacy, to take the lead in solving major public problems.

Yet in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan began selling the U.S. on the false notion that voluntary, under-funded, and largely uncoordinated private charity – and “trickle-down” economic activity by wealthy people who had received massive tax cuts – could somehow make up for major failures in economic and social policy including high unemployment, declining wages, crushed unions, outsourced jobs, and slashed safety nets. The president and a compliant Congress cut food stamps and the special supplemental nutrition (WIC) program for women, infants, and children. They slashed funding for education, health, and housing. All together, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that there were $110 billion in reductions in social services from 1982 to 1986. A Reagan aide said private charities should “pick up the slack” caused by the cuts, and Reagan himself bragged that he gave 10 percent of his income to people in need, although it’s questionable whether that was true.

Reaganomics failed. U.S. poverty shot up by 20 percent over Reagan’s first three years in office. The U.S. government didn’t start measuring hunger (or, as the federal government calls it now, “low food insecurity”) until 1995, but given the explosion of feeding charities, it is clear that U.S. hunger soared during that time.

After Reagan left office, funding for domestic food aid see-sawed based on who was in power, but overall support for low-income Americans declined. The 1993 budget proposed by President Bill Clinton and passed by Democratic Congress (without a single G.O.P. vote) included billions of dollars more in food aid and a very significant increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program that aids the working poor. But in 1996, after vetoing two previous versions of Republican welfare reform legislation for being overly punitive, Clinton did sign into law a third version that was less harmful, but still mandated steep cuts in food and cash assistance. The number of people receiving cash assistance plummeted by 82 percent between 1996 and 2018. Today, 2.2 million low-income Americans receive cash assistance; less than one percent of the nation’s overall population (compared to five percent in 1996) – only about 1 in 20 Americans who live in poverty (compared to one in three in 1996) – receive cash assistance. As I’ve argued before, these changes in welfare were a mixed bag, aiding some but increasing misery and hunger for others.

While President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress increased spending for food assistance in the 2009 stimulus bill by tens of billions of dollars over a number of years, Obama later acquiesced to billions of dollars of food aid cuts pushed by Republicans. As a result, U.S. society started to replace guaranteed access to government anti-poverty programs with private, under-funded, and largely uncoordinated social service bucket brigades — food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries.

In 1980, there were only a few hundred charitable feeding programs in existence nationwide, most of which were soup kitchens and missions in the “skid rows” of large cities. Today, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network, there are more than 58,000 private feeding programs across urban, suburban, and rural America. A majority of these are food pantries that provide supplemental groceries, mostly to working families. I have spent decades visiting such charities and speaking with people forced to go to them to obtain food. I can attest that since people often have to wait on long lines and deal with the internal struggles of embarrassment and humility that accompany utilizing emergency food programs, people’s use of these services are often under the most pressing economic needs.

Just as the bucket brigades failed to stop big fires, private food charities have failed to end U.S. hunger, largely because the dollar value of food provided by the charities has been dwarfed by the amount of the reduced wages and anti-poverty programs cut. U.S. charitable food distribution has continued to grow, but it has done little to solve the problem. In 2016, Feeding America, a group that didn’t even exist until 1979, stated that they distributed 2.6 billion pounds of food. That sounds like a lot, but it comes out to less than one-fifth a pound of food per day for each food insecure American. In 2017, according to USDA, 40 million Americans were food insecure, 29 percent more than in 1999.

Yet as Graham Riches documents in his important new book, Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food, starting in the 1980s and continuing through today, many industrialized nations began making the same mistakes as the U.S. by increasing their societal reliance on food charities while reducing protections for workers and available social services. Riches, an Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, explains that in his home nation of Canada, in the early 1980s, charitable breadlines were formed in response to their recession, high unemployment, and inadequate social insurance programs:

“Food banks began to pick up the pieces of a failing social safety net and became the early warning signs, symptoms, symbols of the retreat from the welfare state. The mantra of neo-liberalism hastened the withdrawal as deregulation, privatization, and the politics of the minimalist state gather pace… when the U.S. food bank model of providing emergency food assistance was imported across the border to Canada, I was as shocked and curious then as I remain today.”

Riches then documents the expansion of food banks in other industrialized nations worldwide, led by the Global Food Bank Network, which was co-founded by Bob Forney, the former CEO of Feeding America and former President of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Such efforts eventually resulted in the creation of national food banks in 32 countries around the globe including in high and middle-income countries such as France, Australia, Brazil, the UK, Italy, India, South Korea, China, and Chile. Operationally, many of these foreign food charities are directly modeled on their U.S. counterparts. I once visited a food bank in Australia whose floor plan was literally supplied by a U.S. food bank.

The international food banks often share something else in common with their U.S. counterparts: they often give the misleading impression that they are fully solving the hunger problem. The top headline on the home page of the Global Food Bank Network is “Empowering the World to Defeat Hunger.” Aside from the questionable assertion that expanding charitable food distribution is “empowering,” the claim that are helping to “defeat” world hunger is preposterous. While the network says that it helps feed 7.11 million people annually, according to the U.N.,  the number of people “facing chronic food deprivation increased to nearly 821 million in 2017 from around 804 million in 2016.”

In modern times, few developed nations other than the U.S. have developed domestic food assistance programs because they relied on generous cash support for struggling families and cradle-to-grave social services for their whole populations. But in 2006, the same year the Global Food Bank Network was founded, the World Bank reported that many developed nations had cut social aid programs “in order to discourage use of and prevent long-term dependence on social assistance.” After the 2008 economic collapse, the charitable response to hunger further increased in these countries as further cuts and restrictions were implemented. As The Washington Post reported in 2011, European workershave been forced to accept salary freezes, decreased hours, postponed retirements and health-care reductions.” Conversely, European corporations often reaped tax credits for their food donations. Even when the world economy boomed again, worker wages in Europe stagnated.

“As welfare states have retreated,” Riches writes, “there can be little doubt that philanthropy, big and small, has privatized emergency food assistance and institutionalized food safety nets at the expense of publicly funded income assistance.” Riches assumes a direct causation between government cuts and the increased charity but provides no hard evidence for any sort of grand conspiracy to combine the two trends. I think the correlation is more subtle — likely not a coordinated plan so much as a mutual reinforcement of the twin ideologies promoting less government and more charity. For example, U.S. President George W. Bush promoted “compassionate conservatism” and “faith-based armies of compassion” as a way to reduce poverty in the U.S. while proposing to privatize Social Security. After that, Conservative UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposed similar ideas:  a “big society” that coupled government spending reductions with increased volunteerism and a bigger role for charities.”  In response, child poverty in Britain soared.

Riches sees the growth of corporate-supported food banking — rather than the advancement of a broad-based “right to food” for all people — as a symbol of the failures of neoliberalism; he seems to assume that all his readers will axiomatically agree with him that everything about neoliberalism is dreadful. While I can quibble over whether all aspects of neoliberalism are automatically harmful to average citizens (for example, I might argue that freer trade and modernized bureaucracies, can, if properly handed, benefit broad populations), it’s hard to argue with his basic argument: too many countries are all-too-happy to allow charities to serve as a fig leaf to obscure the reality of increasing hunger during a time of skyrocketing wealth for their top 10 percent. Both inequality and poverty are rising in most developed nations. While many industrialized countries use no set protocol to specifically measure domestic food insecurity, there is ample evidence that many such countries are joining the U.S. in allowing food deprivation to exist side-by-side with immense wealth. 

There are plenty of solid reasons why it’s a horrible idea to rely on food banks and other food charities to play a lead role in fighting hunger. In her seminal 1999 book about the U.S. charitable food system, Sweet Charity, Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, sociologist Janet Poppendieck lists what she calls the “Seven Deadly ‘ins’” of the network: insufficiency (not enough food); inappropriateness (people don’t get to pick what is best for their families); nutritional inadequacy (too much high-sugar, high-sodium, high-fat junk food); instability (feeding agencies can’t always predict when they will be open and when they will run out of food); inaccessibility (particularly in rural areas or for seniors, people with disabilities, and people without cars); inefficiency (the agencies require a massive, three-tier system just to give out free food); and indignity (at even the best-run agencies, it is usually degrading to obtain emergency food).

Riches proves that many of those are also deficiencies in food banking worldwide. For instance, he cites a study from the Netherlands in which charitable food recipients feel significant shame.

Charitable inadequacy is the largest of all those faults. I often say in speeches, “Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon.” One time an audience member challenged me, claiming that you could indeed fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon if you had enough time. My retort: “No, you can’t, because the Grand Canyon would erode faster than you could fill it.” Likewise, the hunger canyon keeps growing faster than charities can fill it.

In the U.S., even though the federal nutrition safety programs are currently under-utilized and under-funded, and even though many food charities receive government help, the fact remains that the dollar value of food provided by safety net programs is at least 14 times the dollar amount of the value of food provided by all the nation’s charities.

I don’t mean to minimize the vital role that food charities play in filling in gaps. These organizations are indispensable, particularly given that many of the people they feed are vulnerable immigrants largely excluded from key government aid programs. During the federal shutdown, many stepped in to provide extra aid to unpaid federal workers. For now, such charities should continue to exist, and they should get as much support as possible. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that they could ever solve the problem.  

I agree wholeheartedly with Riches that the overall solution to hunger in developed nations is to enact economic and public policies to ensure that all people are guaranteed an adequate supply of nutritious foods. But his strategy for getting there — which relies heavily upon trying to prompt international organizations to pressure sovereign nations to adopt policies that proclaim that everyone has a legal “right to food” — is a bit naïve, perhaps betraying his academic background.

One of his chapters is entitled “Public Accountability and the Right to Food – International Monitoring to the Rescue.” He praises international organizations for “advancing debate, fostering education, and raising awareness about the importance of economic, social and political rights in general and the right to food and public policy in particular.” That’s all well and good, but there is no evidence that all that awareness will, on its own, force governments to take serious actions that go against the perceived self-interests of their economic elites. In industrialized countries, people are rarely “recused” by “international monitoring.” In the U.S., I can’t recall a single instance in which a domestic policy was changed due to pressure from an international organization.

So, what would work to force governments to do the right thing? History proves that only effective, focused, domestic political and social movements — powered by the people most impacted by the issue — can achieve big victories. The marriage equity movement, which achieved a monumental shift in both law and societal values over just a few decades, certainly demonstrated that. When it comes to hunger, the Poor People’s Movement launched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also proves the point. When Richard Nixon ran for President in 1968, he essentially denied the existence of U.S. hunger, blaming political opponents for manufacturing a non-existent problem. But, within a year, the Poor People’s Movement — which, for a while, intensified after King’s death under the leadership of Rev. Ralph Abernathy — prompted then-President Nixon to hold the first (and to this day, only) White House conference on hunger and to support the creation of the modern federal nutrition assistance safety net.  

In just a few years after the Poor People’s Campaign was launched, the president and Congress jointly expanded the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into massive programs, and created the National School Breakfast Program and the WIC Program.

These expansions succeeded spectacularly in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, the Field Foundation sent a team of investigators back to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger in the late 1960s. They found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition and concluded:  “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas.... The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and…WIC have made the difference.”

It is heartbreaking that we have gone backwards. That’s why the United States and other industrialized nations desperately need new domestic political movements that empower the impoverished masses to take charge of their own futures in order to end hunger by raising wages and strengthening safety net.

No one should be forced to merely settle for the leftovers of the wealthy.

Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America and author of America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation.