Can the Washington business community end hunger in this region? It depends who you ask.

November 24, 2013

NOT UNLESS …

Joel Berg, author of “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?”

The amount of money businesses could possibly donate wouldn’t even dent the problem. However, if they raised their wages and used their trade associations to lobby for food stamps, businesses could help end hunger. But they could never end hunger just by donating more to charity.

… I’ve calculated that every charity in America, every food bank, every food rescue group, altogether they provide roughly $5 billion worth of food each year. The federal government just reduced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding by $5 billion, nearly the exact amount charities in America are giving out. One little change of the federal decimal point is equivalent to wiping out the entire charitable food effort in America. I’m not even including sequestration. Sequestration is cutting funding for food banks, [the Women, Infants and Children program], senior meals. Those numbers are a little harder to come by. The Senate farm bill would cut another $4 billion and the House version would cut almost $40 billion. You could increase charity in American tenfold and it would only dent the problem. And yet you could marginally increase the federal nutrition assistance safety net and raise the minimum wage and eliminate hunger in America.

… I don’t think they can do it on their own, but I think they could play a significant role in getting the government to do what it needs to do, and the business community can fill in the gaps.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, we didn’t decide to have bake sales to have more airport screeners. There are a number of countries that have virtually solved this problem of hunger. Scandinavia used to have a massive problem in the 19th century, and they have none any more. They didn’t solve it because of philanthropic help.

YES

Robert Stern, chairman, Sodexo Foundation

I do believe that lobbying government is an important aspect, and we certainly have a focus on that. I’d say that the other biggest lever in my mind is more around employee engagement. For a company of our profile, being able to energize and engage 125,000 employees around hunger is a huge impact and it has the additional impact of making them a more engaged and better employee for the company. Around here in our headquarters, we have a huge level of engagement. But it also improves satisfaction on the job. That would be the single biggest thing the company can do.

As a company foundation ... we bring a businesslike approach to philanthropy. We want to look at measuring the impact of dollars spent and see metrics and return on investment and that we’re moving the needle. There’s a benefit to having a corporate foundation where corporate executives who have that business approach are making the decisions. But it goes beyond what just one company can do. We have to keep fighting and trying to increase the political will.

YES, BUT …

Nancy Roman, president and chief
executive, Capital Area Food Bank

I don’t believe the business community can end hunger all by itself. Neither can government. Neither can the Capital Area Food Bank. Hunger is a solvable problem. If the capital city of the richest country in the world links arms with the business community, with the nonprofit sector, with government, with individuals and society, yes, I think we can solve hunger Zip code by Zip code all across the Greater Washington area.

So many people focus on fundraising. So do we. Funds matter. But one of the biggest things that has to happen is understanding. Understanding the role hunger plays in a society. Hunger underpins health, education. Understanding the incredible link between food and diet-related disease, and food and overall wellness. Understand where hunger is in your own community if you’re a business. One of the things I’ve been struck by coming from the global scene is, it’s easy for people to imagine hunger in Africa. It’s hard for people to imagine hunger in Montgomery County or Fairfax County or a mile from the Capitol but there is hunger in all those places. A business starts by understanding the role of hunger. They have an interest in having a society of people who are well fed and well nourished. Understanding is the most critical first step. Once the understanding is there then every business has a different way of engaging. Some provide food, in-kind services, money, needed volunteers, critical partnership. Businesses educating their own employee base and what can be done is a real service. It’s a complicated problem to get at the root of but there is no shortage of things that can be done.

YES

Kate Atwood, executive director, Arby’s Foundation

No longer do we live in a time where we can rely on the public sector to solve these social issues of our time. There are future generations at risk for our nation. The private sector has to come together. One of the things I’m really proud of is that we come at the issue very holistically with our expertise, assets, real estate, restaurants, people.

… Step one is acknowledgment and awareness. Part of our role is to let the whole constituent employee base know that this is a problem so they can be aware of it in their community. Once you are aware, you can start thinking creatively and innovatively. The corporate world is allowed so much more to think creatively. Look at social entrepreneurship and technology. The public sector has been left behind even though society has evolved. How can we take the evolution of the private sector and bring it to the public sector. We have to be that baton. It’s going to take awareness, money and expertise.

— Vanessa Small

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