Leading the Charge, Leading the Change

By Mark Winne

(Excerpted from a keynote address given to the Northwest Harvest Food Bank Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington – May 15, 2008)

Here are three thoughts I’d ask you to consider – open-mindedly and with the hope that we can make extraordinary food available to every person in this country. The first: to end hunger and food insecurity in the United States we must attack their root cause, namely poverty. Second, the food bank and emergency food network constitutes one of the largest sustained private peacetime mobilizations of human compassion and resources in the history of this country. It must use that power to change society. Third, everybody living in this country, regardless of race, income, or residence, has the right to the healthiest and best food available.

I direct your attention to these three points because in spite of our efforts over the years, we continue to come up short. Why, for instance, in the richest nation in the world do we have 38 million of our brothers and sisters frequently wondering where their next meal will come from? Why has organic and locally grown food become such a craze – organic constituting the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food industry – while high calorie, low nutrient, so-called cheap food, constitutes such a large segment of lower income families’ diets? And why do so many of us have before us an unprecedented abundance of accessible and diversified retail food outlets to choose from while a significant segment of our citizens live in what can only be called food deserts?

Ours is a tale of two food systems – one for the haves and one for the have-nots. It is a food system that is tilting seriously out of balance; one that rewards capital and affluence, while exploiting labor and natural resources. It reveals itself in the health disparities between rich and poor, where an unequal diet and limited access to health care place the poor at greater risk. And perhaps most egregiously, it is a food system that reflects an income gap that has dangerously divided our nation along class lines. We have paid little heed to Plutarch’s ominous warning, “An imbalance between the rich and the poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

Our nation’s cheap food policy and an unsustainable farm policy have threatened the air, the water, and most importantly, our health. Cheap food has lots of calories, but few nutrients, and our bodies have paid a tragic price: 65% of us are now overweight or obese, and due to diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, American taxpayers and health insurers are paying an additional $117 billion a year in health care costs.

For many Americans, it is not just a problem of having enough money to buy food; there is often no place to buy healthy and affordable food. In many of our communities – often the poorest urban neighborhoods as well as 800 rural counties, according to the American Rural Sociological Society – there are simply no decent food stores. These food deserts not only suffer from a paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables, they also attract the vultures of the food industry: junk food purveyors, convenience food stores, and fast food joints that feast on deprivation and scarcity.

The twin jolts of a declining economy and food/energy inflation have driven record numbers of people (28 million) into the food stamp program. In Ohio, 1 in 10 people now receive food stamps. In Michigan, the number is 1 in 8. In total, 40 states have seen increases in food stamp use and six have seen a double-digit increase in the past year.

Some anti-hunger advocates have estimated that a fifty percent increase in the food stamp program – about $18 billion per year, or less than two months of the cost of waging the Iraq War – would largely eliminate food insecurity in America. But as we all know, the President and Congress are not willing to realign the nation’s priorities.

Food insecurity has cast a dark shadow across our national landscape for decades, primarily because we cannot bring ourselves to confront American poverty. Our elaborate network of private and public food programs make a noble effort to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty, but even on their best days only succeed in managing it. In the face of America’s growing low-wage economy and stingy employers, every small increase in food assistance amounts to nothing more than small dollops of whip cream scooped on to the skimpy rations of too many American businesses.

As Washingtonians you should look back for a moment and take pride in your history on the subject of a living wage. In 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of Washington State to require minimum wages for women and minors. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes argued that “the denial of a living wage” harmed workers and burdened society. “What these workers lose in wages the taxpayers are called upon to pay,” Hughes noted, adding that, “The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers.”

President Roosevelt added his voice to the issue when he said, “No business which depends…on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country…and by living wages I mean the wages of a decent living.”

Why does the principle of a living wage encounter such stiff resistance today? Is it because we are not willing to address the yawning gap between the wealthy and everyone else in this country? But until our public policies once again take on the task of ending poverty, and private industry is forced or shamed into paying a living wage to all its workers, hunger and food insecurity will be business as usual for tens of millions of Americans.

Unfortunately, that day will never come unless citizens and our nation’s largest poverty managing charities take up that fight. William James, our great American psychologist and philosopher, once reminded us that we are not here on this earth simply to sip its milk and honey or live as comfortably as society will permit. He told us over 100 years ago that, “If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game…from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we…are needed to reform.”

What do we need to reform?

I want to eliminate hunger and food insecurity in this country once and for all. That 38 million Americans may not know where their next meal is coming from is a bloody stain on our national cloth that must be permanently washed clean. Anti-hunger programs that provide healthy food for all, coupled with anti-poverty programs that eventually eliminate the need for programs like food stamps, should be our highest national policy goals.

No one should be forced to shop at high-priced, limited selection grocery stores or convenience stores because they can’t get to a high quality retail food outlet. A major public investment, in partnership with the private sector, is necessary to make our urban and rural food deserts bloom once more.

And ordinary people of every stripe should have access to the most extraordinary local and sustainably produced food available. That you drive a new BMW and I should drive a 10 year old Ford is one thing; but that you should eat from the silver-lined trough while I am forced to scour the dumpster is another. Extraordinary food for all people should be our motto.

And who are the reformers?

I believe that the goal of a sustainable and just food system is no longer the rant of a disheveled few, but is embraced as a necessary principle of American life by a growing and articulate majority. Its rightness and knowledge are fast becoming lodged in our national bones, and will soon become as inevitable and certain as the plant shoot that cracks the soil and seeks the sun.

Yes, the people are ready, but where are the leaders? Are they too busy managing programs to lead the charge for change? Are they too beholden to politicians and foundations to upset the applecart? As a former non-profit executive of 30 years, I know the temptation to tow the line. During that time, I was reminded everyday that the immediate needs of the clients and keeping the agency’s doors open came first, and that the truth will have to wait. For any passionate person with an ounce of intellect, running your program can be a painful reminder of your inherent impotence. But I also see the charitable leaders and the institutions that support them becoming more sophisticated in their analysis of society and public policy, more frustrated with the slow pace of change, and starting to strain at their tethers. And because they have come to occupy such a dominant position in the charitable structure of almost every U.S. community, I have singled out food banking as an institution that must now step up to the task of raising the bar on their responsibility to end both hunger and poverty.

In this regard I have not been quiet over my concern with the growth of food banking over the past 30 years and its willingness to accept a certain kind of status quo. Just before Thanksgiving, the Washington Post ran an essay I wrote expressing that concern. I said that in 1981 when I co-founded one of Connecticut’s first food banks, there were only four places in the Hartford community where people could get emergency food. Due to the phenomenal growth in the emergency feeding network, there are now nearly 400 such places. Nationwide, the number is now 50,000.

I stated that I viewed this growth not as a legacy of success, but as a glaring example of our failure to end hunger and food insecurity. I said that so much attention to private charity – food drives, distributing more and more pounds of food, bigger and better equipped warehouses – had not only failed to end hunger, it was distracting the public and policy makers from working toward systemic change.

As you can imagine I was greeted by an avalanche of letters, email, and blog posts. In only three days, my piece received 86,000 hits on the Washington Post’s website. According to the Post, this was two to three times more than their typical so-called “big story.” My sampling of this feedback, as well as comments I received from a similar piece that appeared later in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, suggested that two-thirds of the readers agreed completely or mostly with my position. Another 20 per cent, whom I categorized as the “uncompassionate conservatives”, also agreed with me, except that they thought that neither the public sector nor the private sector should help the poor. A small minority felt that I had done a grave disservice to the anti-hunger movement, that it was shameful for me to publish such a piece only four days before Thanksgiving, and that I may even be responsible for the food shortages that were then hitting food banks. Clearly I had struck a lot of different nerves.

Perhaps typical of the negative reaction was that of one prominent food bank official who wrote, “Examining the causes of poverty is noble, worthwhile, and important, but in the meantime, we must feed people who are hungry.”

But among those who agreed with my remarks were a number from the food banking world who were obviously younger, more progressive, and relatively new to the field. Their tone suggested that they were aching for change and were frustrated by the hidebound food bank culture. One letter from a public policy director for one Second Harvest food bank was particularly illuminating:

I’ve been asked to create a strategic plan to guide our food bank through the next five years. In your book [Closing the Food Gap], you recommend several strategies for food banks to pursue, including re-purposing food banks while pursuing an expanded government role.

On the local level, there is an “underground” of food bankers who would like to take a more activist stance. Sometimes these are rogue executive directors, and sometimes “siloed” departments within traditional food banks. They are constrained (as am I) not just by their boards, but by the conflicting messages crafted by fundraising staff, who in their role as an interface with donors feel the need to tread more lightly (and sometimes in opposite directions). These messages are likewise favored by communications staff who rarely want a more controversial story than “local pantry out of turkeys” on the evening news.

My question is simple: what can a single food bank do now, in concrete terms, to better serve its constituents as well as change the culture of the anti-hunger movement? How do we get the food banks of the nation stampeding in a different direction? Something tells me the announcement won’t come from America’s Second Harvest.

I answered this way:

Food banks have become masters of moving food. They thrive in a culture where that kind of mastery is recognized and rewarded. To step out of that culture into the world of public policy advocacy is not comfortable, well understood, or supported, either internally or externally.

I have seen too many food banks refuse to take on the political power in their own communities and states because they fear losing the modest government contributions they now receive. They fear conducting vigorous public policy advocacy because they might jeopardize support for their next multi-million dollar capital campaign.

To break this cycle, food banks must conduct a soul-searching examination that begins with the question, “How do we end this problem of hunger and food insecurity?” They must then reframe the problem as one that will not be solved by simply donating more food. As the most dominant food charity in their respective communities – and one of the biggest non-arts and culture charities as well – food banks must use their visibility and moral stature to steer the conversation away from more food to more attention to poverty and public policy. This conversation must start with their boards, their staff, and their volunteers, and then move aggressively into the public policy arena.

Food banks should shift a significant percentage of their operating budget into public policy advocacy that has a strong anti-poverty focus. While the exact amount of that budget can be debated, I think the Oregon Food Bank is a good model because it has five full-time staff assigned to that role. I also think that food banks should join forces with other anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates in conducting their public policy campaigns.

I strongly believe that food banks should sign a “No More Capital Campaigns” pledge. I am waiting for the day when a food banks says, “We know that demand for food is growing. We are in the biggest warehouse we’ve ever been in. We have the most trucks we’ve ever had, and yet we could easily justify an expansion of our infrastructure. But we are not going to expand because we believe that the larger community, the state, and the national government are responsible for addressing the need and its underlying cause.”

I think two more pledges are also in order. The first is to reduce or eliminate the amount of unhealthy food they accept and distribute. This will tell donors and the general public that food banks are committed to following the nation’s dietary guidelines, and that the nutrient content of their food, and therefore the health of their clients, are far more important to them than managing the waste stream of the nation’s industrial food system.

And second, and perhaps most controversially, food banks should refuse donations from food industry sources that do not pay their employees a living wage, provide safe and healthy working conditions, or may be polluting the air, land, and water. In other words, food banks should develop a social and environmental screen for the receipt of donations that is comparable to the screens applied by socially responsible investment funds for picking their investments. In so doing, food banks will send a strong message that they will not do business with companies whose wages are so low that their own employees must seek help from the very institutions they are donating to.

Let me close by saying that I remain optimistic, in spite of my criticisms and critique. I believe we can face these challenges and win the fight. I believe this to be true because it is my conviction that those who feel life the most, those with a riper human presence will ultimately prevail. And I don’t know anything that exposes the warm core of our humanity more than sharing food, or the act of gardening, or our quiet appreciation of nature’s gifts.

We recognize our humanity daily in our food pantries, schools, and at farmers’ markets. It is there in our communities, face-to-face, in our face, undeniable, and omnipresent. And the more that this recognition spreads and the more seeds we sow, the more our humanity grows into an inexorable force for change, a force that will one day overcome the resistance of those who try to thwart sustainability and social justice.

I am convinced that we are united by a shared desire for things that are good for us, our communities, and the environment. The low-income mother who wants the best food for her children is no different than the yuppie family that spends whatever it must to ensure the healthiest and safest food for their children. I do not believe that our desires for good food are separated by race, class, or location, but I know the results are. The poor, the person of color, those in underserved urban and rural communities, are forced to the back of the line even though their desires are the same as those at the front of the line. This is the fight we must all own. It is the struggle for food justice; it is the struggle for the health of the earth and our own humanity.

And it is my conviction that our nation’s food banks can lead the charge for a more just society. You feel and see and hear humanity’s pain more acutely than most. You are more attuned, as the poet Seamus Heaney says, to that “phenomenal instant when the spirit flares.” You have the ability to get the public’s head above the plate, so to speak, and make them see that distributing more and more food is not the answer. You have the numbers on your side, you have the public’s attention, and you have the resources to make the right known. Gather those forces together, unleash your humanity, and make food justice for all not only your mantra, but that of every person in this nation.

Thank you.

Mark Winne is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press). The book may be purchased from www.amazon.com and www.beacon.org as well as many local book stores.