Politics of Poverty

What is the anti-hunger industrial complex?

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A Q+A with Author Andy Fisher about his new book “Big Hunger”.

Author and activist Andy Fisher has been a thorn in the side of the most powerful people in the food industry for the better part of three decades. As the Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition from 1994 – 2011, and an adjunct faculty member at several Oregon universities, Andy has been writing, speaking, teaching, and rattling cages about the root causes of hunger, food insecurity and poverty in the US long before the “food movement” was a thing.

In recent years he has been one of the most vocal advocates for changing the way domestic anti-hunger groups understand their mission. Anyone on the “COMFOOD” listserv, a discussion group Housed at Tufts University and administered through its School of Nutrition Science and Policy, will likely be familiar with Andy’s core argument that the “hunger-industrial complex”, big anti-hunger groups and the large corporations that fund them, are failing to address the real causes of domestic hunger, preferring Band-Aids that can keep people fed through charity while burnishing corporate reputations. His newly released Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups challenges the people and the leading organizations working to address hunger in the United States to look for new inspiration, new approaches and new partners.

We asked Andy a few questions about the book and his core argument; the following is a very lightly edited transcript of that email-conversation:

1. Why did you write this book?

Our approach to hunger has not been working. Food insecurity remains stubbornly at the same levels as 20 years ago, while income inequality, diabetes and obesity soars. There has been a marked lack of dialogue within the anti-hunger field about whether our current path is adequate. I wrote Big Hunger to spark that dialogue and point a new path forward.

2. Have you gotten any backlash? Who has gotten mad at you (so far)?

I have received an incredible amount of praise and appreciation for the book. Many folks are calling it courageous and brave.

Editor’s note: Check out Andy’s interview with Civil Eats for his description of some of the backlash to his message in 2013.

3. When (in your view) is it appropriate for anti-hunger organizations to fundraise from large corporations?

Every organization should develop a corporate donation policy. I urge organizations to consider the impact of their fundraising on the broader anti-hunger movement and cause. Does a group’s fundraising compromise our collective ability to promote a sustainable food system and healthy persons?  If taking money from any source will compromise a group’s ability to implement its mission, or to lead its representatives not to speak out or act on issues vital to its mission, then the group should reconsider the donation.

4. Isn’t a little corporate complicity a small price to pay to ensure hungry people are fed?

If our only goal as a society is to ensure that hungry people get a meal, then perhaps corporate complicity is not a problem. That approach is not hunger elimination, but hunger maintenance. It feeds people for today, but kicks the can down the road for tomorrow, keeping people in the same conditions that cause food insecurity. However, that corporate complicity, which I call the hunger-industrial complex (link added), is a major obstacle to actually eliminating hunger. When anti-hunger groups facilitate corporations greenwashing their damaged reputations, while closing their eyes about the ways in which their donors perpetuate hunger, then the price we pay as a society is quite high.

5. If the large anti-hunger organizations were to suddenly accept your critique and immediately change course, how would that change what they do? What should they be doing to better address economic inequality and stagnating wages? What policies / political fights would they get behind?

They would listen to the priorities of their clients, and organize around these issues as they relate to food insecurity. It might mean working on affordable housing, opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or raising the minimum wage. Food banks would dedicate at least 10 percent of their budgets to public policy advocacy and community organizing, as well as find avenues for greater participation in decision-making by their constituents.

6. You have said that “The anti-hunger field is arguably the most politically and morally powerful force of civil society”, but if the organizations and institutions take your advice and begin taking on the companies that fund them and the economic policies/forces that cause hunger, won’t they risk their influence/power and moral authority?

Perhaps that sentence should have read “has been” instead of “is.” Big Hunger brings to light a long simmering tension under the surface that questions that very moral authority. There are many who perceive anti-hunger groups as increasingly corrupt because of how their corporate connections influence their work.  By standing up for deeper solutions that reduce poverty, anti-hunger groups will only improve their moral authority. But yes they might lose some corporate money, which would be offset by their more cost effective investments in public policy advocacy. Regarding political power, mobilizing even a small portion of the 46 million food bank clients and tens of millions of volunteers and donors toward policy change can only boost the sector’s reach.

7. What should a food bank donor/volunteer/supporter do differently in light of the problems you identify with the anti-hunger industry?

  • Don’t think that your work or money will solve the hunger problem, when it is only focused on charity. Support groups that address poverty not just put a band aid on hunger.
  • Educate yourself about the causes and solutions to poverty and food insecurity. Ask your food bank or pantry to change its practices away from a transactional approach and toward a more comprehensive suite of services to help people get out of poverty.
  • Join forces with other volunteers and clients to discuss what works and what doesn’t with the emergency food system. Consider forming a union of food pantry volunteers, such as Freedom 90 (freedom90.ca) to speak out in favor of making food banks obsolete.

8. What exactly would need to change in the large anti-hunger institutions/organizations to shift their priorities?

The biggest question is leadership. Where will it come from?  Food banks are full of great people doing good work but they are trapped in a bad system. Leadership is needed to recognize and take action to change that system, and not just perpetuate it. It is beginning to happen in some ways at Feeding America, but they are so entrenched in corporate interests that many people are skeptical of their ability to implement much change.  I among others believe that change will have to come from the great examples of organizations at the local level as well as pressure from the outside.

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