Washington, DC is where I’ll be next week, and it’s also most of the name of the paper – The Washington Post – where I was 12 years ago. Thanks to the superbly quirky and timelessly perfect Tabard Inn, I’ll be speaking about and signing my book Food Town, USA there on Thursday, December 12, at 6:00 PM. Of course, this very free event will be entirely more reachable for people living in the Greater Metro-DC area, but if you just happen to be in town, perhaps to watch the fireworks exploding over Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, stop on by for a little hope and inspiration. And like its namesake in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Tabard is also the place where you’ll find a healthy helping of hospitality served up side-by-side with good stories. The Tabard is just a few blocks south of Dupont Circle at 1739 N Street, NW. To RSVP (the room only holds 60) send a note to my kind and thoroughly knowledgeable sponsor Marsha Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the following day, Friday, December 13 at 12 noon, I’ll be speaking at the University of the District of Columbia at a seminar sponsored by the CAUSE graduate program and Professor Sabine O’Hara. In addition to students and faculty, the event is open to the general public. UDC is located at 4200 Connecticut Avenue, NW in Washington, DC. We’ll be in building 32, 2nd floor, suite 200. My book will be on sale in the UDC bookstore, and I certainly can sign it at the event. For more information please contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, if you dial back the clock almost exactly 12 years and stop on Sunday, November 16, 2007, you’ll find a full front-page op-ed piece by yours truly in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. Called “When the Handouts Keep Coming, the Food Lines Never End,” I shared some of our food system’s conundrums, especially with regard to food banks, from my first book Closing the Food Gap. You can read the whole piece here if you want a little refresher on where we were 12 years ago with respect to hunger, justice, and food banks. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/16/AR2007111601213.html.
The reason I’m resurrecting this article from the archives is because of the continuing discussion about the role of food banks in addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity, including social and economic injustice. Andy Fisher’s book Big Hunger raised cutting issues on this subject including the complicity of many food banks with big food corporations. Recent articles by Adele Peters https://www.fastcompany.com/90430262/can-food-banks-put-an-end-to-hunger-if-their-biggest-donors-are-the-cause-of-the-hunger and Chris Moller’s “Does Every Can Help?” about the rise of food banks in the United Kingdom speak to the continuing problem – one that’s migrating from the US to Europe – of treating the symptoms, not the sickness.
One could argue that the food banking world hasn’t made much progress in getting beyond their fixation on receiving and distributing more donated food while turning a blind eye to poverty and racial inequity. But on the other hand, we see the emergence of food bank networks like Closing the Hunger Gap (I happily gave permission to the group to adapt my book’s title for their purposes) https://thehungergap.org/ that are raising up numerous strategies to address hunger’s root causes. Focusing on securing healthy food and even rejecting unhealthy food donations, running gardening programs, and advocating for their clients to secure SNAP benefits and health insurance are just some of the hallmarks of today’s new and improved food bank.
Maybe a little back story on my 2007 Washington Post piece might provide some context for this continuing debate. Within minutes of my op-ed appearing early that Sunday morning, my email inbox started filling up (I made two mistakes: letting the piece run the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and including my email address). With a little help from my friends, I was able to sort through all the emails which totaled over 300 in 24 hours. Close to two-thirds either totally or substantially agreed with me that food banks were not solving the problem or, worse, were a part of the problem. Of the remaining one-third, about half strongly and politely disagreed with me, saying in effect that without food banks hunger across America would be rampant. The other half (10 to 15 percent of the total) were, frankly, of the looney-tune variety – many of their remarks not fit for Christian ears, of which most of them claimed to be.
Keeping in mind that the dawn was just barely breaking on the social media era – there were no tweets, retweets, or likes to measure the public’s response – the following comment I received a few days later about the op-ed from Zofia Smardz, The Washington Post’s Outlook Editor, was revealing:
“Yours was definitely one of our breakout pieces. One big measure we use is hits on the Web — you got 85,779 as of yesterday, so that’s only three days since the story was posted on Saturday — it’ll continue to get views all week, I’m sure. Most of our big pieces average somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 in that same time period, so anything over that is huge. It’s obviously a subject that touches a nerve…”
In other words, not only did I stir up a hornet’s nest, I may have beat out Henry Kissinger for readers. But aside from that, the most important question is how America, nearing the end of this century’s first quarter, is going to make economic and social justice a reality rather than just a tagline in political debates. Most of the nation’s big food banks have or will soon celebrate their 40th anniversaries. I’m more sanguine now than I was in 2007 that they are using the occasion for some thoughtful reflection and analysis rather than toasting the one-billionth pound of food they gave away. Let’s hope that they continue to grow into the important and necessary role that only institutions of their size and purpose can play, which is to lock arms with others who are dedicated to closing the hunger gap, closing the income and wealth gap, and closing the race gap.