|All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? Charity Can’t Do It. Government Can.|
|Thursday, 26 February 2009 08:38|
If you doubled the size of the nation’s charitable food distribution systen – those 40,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and food banks with their millions of volunteers and billions in charitable contributions – you would reduce the number of “food insecure” people in the United States by a mere 7%, from 35.5 million to 33 million.
On the other hand, if you increased federal nutrition programs by just 41%, you would eliminate hunger in the nation entirely. There would be no “food insecure” people in the United States. None!
That is the key message in All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? (Seven Stories Press, $22.95) by Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Aganist Hunger. Charity can’t do it. Government can.
Why haven’t we done it? “One word, politics” says Berg. “Unlike other books that have argued that domestic hunger is a very unique problem, this book posits that it is actually emblematic of our society’s broader problems. The most characteristic features of modern American politics – entrenched ideological divisions, the deceptive use of statistics, the dominance of big money, the passivity and vacuity of the media, the undue influence of interest groups and empty partisan posturing – all work in tandem to prevent us from ending domestic hunger.”
Berg, who spent eight years with the U. S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration prior to joining NYCCAH, buttresses his argument with an indepth history of “hunger” in the United States, including efforts to measure it, hide it, stigmatize it and... yes, fight it.
He describes the political battles over hunger surveys and development of terms like “food insecurity” and “very low food security” to desensitize the issue. He builds the link between rising hunger and increasing poverty, declining family incomes and spiraling economic inequality. He lays out the history of government nutrition programs like Food Stamps, WIC, and School Lunch and Breakfast programs – along with their strengths and weaknesses.
And, in a chapter on “The Charity Myth”, Berg offers an honest but hard hitting critique of the voluntary, nonprofit antihunger system, the sector in which he, himself, plays a leading role.
“Most Americans hold tight to the myth that neighbor-to-neighbor generosity and compassion is the best support system for those in need,” he writes. “But trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon... the belief that charity does it better than government only ensures hunger will persist in America.”
Berg clearly admires and is inspired by the dedication of the countless volunteers who created a nationwide network of local emergency food programs in response to Ronald Reagan’s shredding of the anti-poverty safety net during the 1980s. He likens them to the early “bucket brigades” of the past in which neighbors banded together in event of fire. They represented “the very best” of our national spirit, he says.
However, these volunteer brigades “almost always failed to extinguish the fires and cities were reduced to cinders,” he says. Emergency food programs are not all that different.
“Rather than serving as a last resort... these agencies have increasingly become the nation’s first line of defense against hunger,” says Berg. Yet, “they are mostly failing to solve the problem.”
At least to some degree, they have contributed to problem they are trying to solve.
As a necessary tool in their own fundraising efforts, nonprofit emergency food programs tend to play up their own value in fighting hunger while playing down the importance of government programs – even though much of the food they distribute was actually provided through government programs such as HPNAP or TEFAP.
“We have come to learn that talking too much about the role of government can decrease donations and the most effective fundraising strategies give potential donors the clear impression that the only things standing between a family and hunger is their donation to our organization,” says Berg.
At the same time, the search for individual and corporate contributions sometimes tempers the advocacy voice which will be essential to addressing the underlying causes of poverty and hunger.
Berg goes on to point out that government nutrition programs are, in fact, signifcantly more efficient than the charitable food program network, which must run distribution systems of warehouses, trucks and pantries parallel to the commercial food distribution system. He argues that in the Food Stamp Program, “85% of all spending went directly to food benefits”, while “the total overhead for the entire (charitable food distribution) system – from original dontaion to final distribution-- is far greater than 20%.”
Most critical, however, is the inability of charitable food programs to address the size of the hunger problem in America. Berg notes that all of the food distributed by Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) in 2006, would have only amounted to 3.6% of the food needed by hungry Americans.
Yet, Berg counters arguments from some advocates that the voluntary food network merely serves to relieve pressure for more fundamental solutions and, therefore, should not exist at all. “I strongly disagree with their conclusion that the emergency food assistance system makes the problem worse,” he says. Rather, he argues that the system exposes often non-low-income volunteers to the reality of poverty in America. At the same time, food programs are “increasingly involved in improving the nutritional content of their food, enabling people to apply for food stamps and other benefits on-site, connecting people with job training and education programs etc.
“Perhaps most importantly,” he continues, “people can’t eat hope.” While the emergency food assistance system has many problems, “if you rely upon it to feed yourself or your family, it’s a lot better than simply the pomise of better government programs and policies down the line.”
In conclusion, Berg lays out a plan for eliminating hunger in the United States. It relies on increased funding for a redesigned government nutrition programs and calls on the charitable antihunger network to become advocates for change.
We can end hunger in America, says Berg.