Outlook: The Futility of Food Banks
Monday, November 19, 2007; 1:00 PM
"America's far-flung network of emergency food programs - from Second Harvest to tens of thousands of neighborhood food pantries - constitutes one of the largest charitable institutions in the nation. Its vast base of volunteers and donors and its ever-expanding distribution infrastructure have made it a powerful force in shaping popular perceptions of domestic hunger and other forms of need. But in the end ... there is something in the food-banking culture and its relationship with donors that dampens the desire to empower the poor and take a more muscular, public stand against hunger."
Mark Winne, former director of the Hartford (Conn.) Food System and author of "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty" was online Monday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article about how the food bank infrastructure prevents any serious efforts to truly solve poverty and food insecurity.
The transcript follows.
Mark Winne: Good morning and good afternoon. I'm Mark Winne and I'm looking forward to today's conversation. I'd like to say first off that I've received over 100 fascinating and thoughtful emails in 24 hours on my article. They range the full spectrum of opinion. That seems to suggest that this is an important and timely topic.
Chicago: Mr. Winne asserts in his opinion piece that the work of food banks to feed hungry Americans distracts lawmakers from solving the problem of hunger itself. It seems that the author is suggesting that food pantries, soup kitchens, food banks and others stop operating so that elected officials solve the problem. Is that the argument that the author is making? Is it not possible for charitable organizations to both serve needy families and individuals and help foster positive changes? In many cases, food banks are doing both.
Mark Winne: This is a very important question. What I am saying is that we cannot end hunger unless we end poverty; food banking as well as other antihunger programs do a good job of managing poverty by alleviating its worst symptom, hunger. While antihunger programs remain necessary for the time being, they have strayed too far from, and in some cases never acknowledged the need to end poverty. And I do get more specific in my book "Closing the Food Gap.."
Washington: I enjoyed reading the article all the way to the end, but the prescriptions you give in the final paragraphs don't make sense to me. If private handouts do foster a culture of dependency, then why do you believe that public (government) handouts won't do the same?
Mark Winne: People seemed disappointed that I didn't end poverty with my article, that I left a lot unstated or implied. I won't end poverty here either, but let me say that we won't end if we continue down the same road that we are on. This is a public policy problem for which there is a role for private charity, however,we must begin to generate effective antipoverty initiatives -- initiatives that will cost money that will come from reducing the enormous income disparities that we have in this country and from correcting the low wage marketplace which has been given the license to increase the wealth of the few at the expense of the many.
Indianola, Iowa: Don't you think that it's short-sighted to promote self-sufficiency and address the long-term causes of poverty without also ending hunger today by providing food? It's hard to tell a woman whose kids are whining because their bellies hurt that you're busy addressing poverty and economic injustice so that she won't have to suffer in five years.
Mark Winne: There must be a transition. By no means I am suggesting that we close food banks tomorrow and end the food stamp program. But we must begin to develop an effective antipoverty strategy, that, as it becomes successful, will mean that we can significantly diminish or change the role of food banks.
Santa Fe, N.M.: Hi Mark. You make several good points, but it would be helpful if you acknowledged the public policy work being done by America's Second Harvest. Plus, don't you think that food banks are helpful today, while the policy change you are arguing for slowly takes place?
Mark Winne: Some food banks are doing a better job of public policy than others. I want to single out the Oregon Food Bank as an exceptional example that puts public policy at the top of the list. I discuss them more in my book "Closing the Food Gap..." They have dedicated a not insignificant share of their budget to policy work, including work that is designed to increase health care and wages for low income Oregon citizens. This is a model that needs to be widely replicated.
Gainesville, Fla.: In a children's bicycle program, we found kids took better care of their "free" bikes when they earned them by learning how to repair bikes and apprenticing in the shop fixing other kids' bikes. Have food banks thought of taking this "empowerment" approach?
Mark Winne: You suggest empowerment as a good approach to ending hunger and poverty. Ultimately, that is the answer. Meaningful antipoverty efforts will make those who are poor meaningful partners in finding solutions. I love your bike program idea. Are one of these young people available to fix my bike?
Aiea, Hawaii: Instead of using so many volunteers, could the poor people themselves volunteer -- or better yet, be paid to work at food banks? They might learn a skill.
Mark Winne: It is interesting that you rarely see the recipients engaged directly in food distribution activities. Some self-help approaches like community and youth gardening, and other community food security strategies do focus on participant engagement. The direction you suggest has been tried in some place, though I'm not sure of the outcome. It's worth exploring more.
Alexandria, Va.: If your solution to the domestic hunger issue is "ending poverty," what do you suggest we do on a daily basis as local citizens to help with this?
Mark Winne: Good question. A few thoughts: become involved in local living wage campaigns. Expecting people to live on the minimum wage, making both spouses work two or more jobs at a time, isn't going to cut it. Support community economic development strategies that will bring good paying job to poor communities. Establishing new supermarket in underserved low-income communities helps people get lower priced and healthier food and also creates high paying jobs. But don't stop supporting those efforts that address the immediate problem. They are important too.
Washington: I'd also like to mention our friends at the Vermont Food Bank. They are doing some very innovative work with local farms and the Vermont public schools. What Vermont has in common with Oregon is its willingness to break out of the typical Second Harvest mold and actually attack the root causes behind poverty instead of simply focusing on pounds of food donated and pounds of food distributed. Certainly we need to continue programs that feed; we cannot, however, kid ourselves into thinking that these programs are in any way an answer.
Mark Winne: Yes, I'm familiar with Vermont's good and progressive work. Perhaps you and others could take the lead in assembling a list of model, food bank-based approaches, with case studies from around the country, that will change the direction of emergency feeding system.
Alexandria, Va.: I found the article thought-provoking -- I've volunteered at and contributed to food banks through my church, and I've had some of the same thoughts before. But the article offered only one possible solution: legislative action. In the past, federal antipoverty programs have produced limited results and troubling unintended consequences of the kind you decry around food banks. Could there be some other way to maximize the advantages of the current structures that exist essentially in the private sector?
Mark Winne: One criticism I received was that my recommendation for effective antipoverty approaches harkened back to the supposedly failed Great Society days. I don't think Head Start was a failure. I don't think that housing programs were a failure, And I don't think that a host of low income outreach and empowerment programs were a failure. Yes, politics and corruption were rife, incompetence was too prevalent, but that doesn't mean we dismiss a whole range of useful social policy initiatives.
Washington: What role do you see nonprofits playing helping low-income communities fill in service gaps? Should nonprofits participate in advocacy 100 percent of the time and never provide a direct service? Do after-school tutoring programs enable schools to remain weak on education? Do free clinics enable the government to ignore pleas for health care reform?
Mark Winne: Good question. As a 25 year director of a non-profit program I began to see the need to shift from only doing projects/programs to also doing policy work. In Hartford, we started a city food policy council and a state one as well; we worked closely with our state's antihunger coalition, which I might add, was heavily supported by our food bank. Your projects can often demonstrative new and innovative approaches that can be supported and eventually replicated with greater support from the public sector. Showing up and speaking up at city council and state legislature hearings are essential, but so is the project work.
Anonymous: What specific governmental programs would you advocate, and what are their real prospects in the near-term?
Mark Winne: Health care for all. 47 million uninsured Americans is a drain on them and society. Childcare let's people get an education and into the work force. A living wage for all means that people now working at Wal-Mart won't have to apply for food stamps and go to food banks to also feed their families. A quality education for all would also have to be on the agenda.
Palo Alto, Calif.: I lead a group of folks who help at a soup kitchen, and I read your insightful article. In the three years I have done this, I see a lot of the same people coming again and again. How do we remove the dependency (if there is one) while continuing to do what we do? How do we know the truly needy from those who are dependent, and who am I to judge? A majority of the folks are living on disability or working minimum-wage jobs.
Mark Winne: I know this is a conundrum that many face. Taking a more case-oriented approach to clients not only means that you get to know them and their needs better, but also means that you can play a more active role in securing other services for them that might provide a long term solution. I'm surprised, for instance, by how many food pantries and soup kitchens don't attempt to hook their clients up with food stamps. But more important, you need to play a role in long term public policy solutions. Go to the legislature, go to Congress, go to city council; don't just go the private sector requesting more food donations.
Montgomery County, Md.: I found your article extremely interesting. As an applied social scientist, I have studied poverty programs for state government. In my experience, the food pantries and other emergency services were the first to seek government grant funding but the last to be willing to provide data on who was being served. They had to be threatened with losing state funding before they began providing some minimal counts of meals served -- a count that in and of itself is not meaningful in understanding the causes or faces of poverty.
There was a "ministry" mentality -- "back door of the church" -- that caused them to act differently than the other kinds of community services. They were also highly reluctant to collect data on the people using the services. This became a point of contention after welfare reform, because poverty advocates insisted that welfare reform was causing numbers at food pantries to rise, yet there were no data showing who was using the food pantries. Please keep up the provocative dialog on this topic.
Mark Winne: I know data collection has been a problem for food banks who serve large numbers of food pantries essentially run by volunteers. Getting the numbers right is the last thing on their mind. Yet, as you point out, without the numbers, it's hard to formulate good responses and public policy. It is a flaw in a system that depends so heavily on volunteers and is so independent by nature. The sense of doing good at a very local level has not yet extended to the higher levels where change might occur.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Mark, your article mixes courageous truth with flawed logic. The result is a disservice to the many households in my state that struggle to keep hunger at bay. The USDA does not measure hunger or food insecurity by reference to the number of people served by emergency food providers -- it uses a survey methodology that meets the highest standards of the Census Bureau. So your story of the food bank truck describes a very different problem than the one described last week by the USDA. Yet you leave your readers with the impression that reports of hunger in America (such as the USDA survey) fail to measure reality, and instead only measure an artificial free food phenomenon.
It's fine to hold food banks accountable to their professed mission; indeed, you showed some courage in attempting to do that. But along the way, you should not have cast doubt on the fact that hunger is a reality for one or more members of 4 percent of U.S. households, or that food insecurity (poor food quality, reduced portion sizes, etc.) is a reality for 11 percent of U.S. households.
Mark Winne: Hunger and food insecurity numbers have changed very little over the years. I'm not sure of the exact reality you're describing, but the lack of progress in reducing these numbers does suggest that a new approach, one more systemic and policy-based, is required.
Denver: Did you know that Second Harvest has done quite a bit of research to substantiate that people seeking emergency food assistance through charitable agencies are, in fact, needy? The latest stats show that the folks in the lines at soup kitchens and pantries have a median income of 70 percent of the poverty level. That proves that people don't just "show up" because of the free food. I myself have better things to do than go to an emergency shelter just because I heard the stew is good.
Mark Winne: I don't doubt that most people seeking assistance are needy. But our lack of engagement in finding out why they are needy and what to do about it is the failure I describe. I am not suggesting that we dismiss people because we lack hard evidence that they are needy, but they we get moving with solutions to that need.
Chicago: I'd suggest that you also note that a number of food banks across the country have Community Kitchen programs that train low-income individuals in culinary skills. More than a handful of food banks actually are trying to make changes at the federal, state and local levels to help low-income families (which results in less demand at their facilities, which is a good thing). Most if not all of them work to educate the public that charity can't solve the problem of hunger alone.
Mark Winne: Yes. Good point. Job training programs like you describe have made a contribution. I'd like to press food banks further. Look at your budget and set aside a meaningful amount of money for advocacy work. I'm sure America's Second Harvest must have some numbers on that. A couple of full time people doing nothing but advocacy that is designed to end poverty, not only increase funding for food banks, is what's necessary.
Maryland: There are many institutions committed to economic justice -- particularly unions. What have you done personally to strengthen the hand of that sector?
Mark Winne: I've joined Santa Fe's Living Wage Network, a city which I'm proud to say has the highest living wage, as promulgated by ordinance, of any city in the nation.
Potomac, Md.: I've read about these Food Stamp Challenges where community leaders and politicians live on a food stamp budget (I think it's $1 per meal). Wouldn't it help to educate the public on what it is like to be poor and hungry in this country? Wouldn't it be an eye-opener if the president and his cabinet would take part in such an effort?
Mark Winne: Yes, that kind of education can be helpful. But I'm concerned that such efforts have a very short half-life. Empathy for the poor is lacking in America. It is a bridge to antipoverty efforts that need to be rebuilt. But once rebuilt, it must be crossed. Empathy is a starting point, not an ending point.
Visalia, Calif.: Hi Mark, I appreciate the point you are making, that in some ways food banks represent not just a stop-gap measure, but in some ways are a diversion of resources and energy to change the underlying problems of poverty and lack of opportunity. Thanks for using your experience to look at the problem with fresh eyes.
Mark Winne: Thanks. It's nice to get an easy and sympathetic comment. I'll take them all.
Washington: Hi! Can you talk a little bit about the nation's food industry? Do you think there's overproduction of food in this country, and if so, what's overproduced? And what else would you say about the industry regarding food banks as a waste-management tool? What kind of food producer or industry is likely to do this? Thanks.
Mark Winne: Great question. Overproduction of the wrong kinds of food, corn being our current example,cause problems, especially obesity, which may have eclipsed hunger and food insecurity as our nation's number one nutrition problem. I recognize the extraordinary work that many food banks have done in securing fresh produce and even fighting off the donation of junk that America's food industry benevolently shares with them. I don't think food banks are culpable in promoting obesity, but I do think more has to be done to look at the co-dependency that has formed between them and the food industry. I discuss this connection more in my forthcoming book "Closing the Food Gap..." which I am shamelessly promoting here.
Takoma Park, Md.: Excellent, thoughtful article. Always courageous to question and shed light on well-intentioned efforts that may have unintended consequences. The real underlying question is two-fold. First, why is it so much easier to get people to donate and volunteer to feed the hungry and not to help the poor? Is it just that it is so simple and elemental to offer food, or is there more to it than that? Second, how do you transform or redirect all the political will surrounding feeding the hungry into political will to address poverty? What are the successful strategies? Witness the power of the nutrition community in the Farm Bill debate to secure funding for feeding programs. Thank you.
Mark Winne: As a compassionate people, we won't let somebody starve. We just aren't wired that way. But as an up-by-the-bootstraps kind of people, we won't help anyone more than we have to. And we sure don't like gov'mint getting in the way. We are unique among developed nations in that we rely so heavily on food as a form of public assistance. USDA's 2006 food assistance expenditures were $53 billion. No other country manages social welfare this way. Looking at social and economic problems comprehensively, not single focused solutions like feeding people, will eventually muster the political will to change. As you suggest, the movement by nutrition and public health advocates in this farm bill is a breath of fresh air that will only grow stronger in time. Healthy food and health may be the way to open the door to real change.
Reston, Va.: Ending poverty means changing society. Right now, social policy will allow a person or family to do no work from cradle to grave and receive government assistance and charitable assistance to survive. Universal health care would mean providing health care to those who are disinterested in being part of the system. Isn't this the bottom line? How is it possible to change a system that does not have real consequences for those unwilling to participate? Current social policy will not tolerate the Jamestown-era rule of "those that work, eat." Is change possible for that section of society that is willing to continue suffering?
Mark Winne: You can't receive a living wage unless you work. I'm not suggesting so-called government handouts. I'm suggesting that the private sector has to play a role, that why wages need to be commensurate with the true cost of living. As a nation with one of the greatest income disparities in the world, there is plenty of room for the haves to "share" with the have-nots.
Washington: Why would you choose to publish this article the week before Thanksgiving? What with increasing food prices and decreasing USDA donations (see today's article in The Post) food pantries and food banks need donations and support more than ever.
washingtonpost.com: Food Pantries Struggling With Shortages (Post, Nov. 19)
Mark Winne: Because this is the time of year, perhaps the only time, when people listen and hopefully think about these issues. If we can mobilize to raise food for Thanksgiving distribution, we can contact Congress, talk to Presidential candidates, and otherwise make our voices known. A letter to the editor of your local paper about the underlying cause of hunger at this time of year can go a long way.
Falls Church, Va.: The Post's editorial page previously has been harshly critical of the Government for using the term "food insecurity," arguing that hunger is an either-or situation, and that the term "food insecurity" disguises the severity of hunger in the U.S. Can you tell us a bit more as to what the term means to you when you use it?
Mark Winne: Food insecurity generally refers (and I think accurately describes) the real sense of vulnerability that lower income people feel when they don't know their next meal is coming from. It represents a series of coping behaviors such as a parent skipping a meal so that their child can eat, or even sending their children off to play with a neighbor just before dinner time in hopes that they will be fed there. More severe forms of food insecurity do exist in the U.S., but generally speaking, a high degree of uncertainty about your next meal is the dominant reality for those we classify as "hungry."
Arlington, Va.: I am intrigued by the "good intentions going bad" idea in your column, and wonder if Congress made a big mistake giving tax write-offs and suit indemnity to restaurants and stores that contribute food to food banks. Other comments to your article I read indicate this has become a back-door way for companies to get a tax write-off for donating waste and garbage to poverty programs. Is this correct? And if so, do you have a corrective?
Mark Winne: My point is we have relied too heavily on this kind of private sector response as a solution, even a cop-out for a more vigorous public response. Just think about the reality: every get's excited about coming up with new ways to share food, especially wasted or surplus food, food drives occur, new food banks are built, food industry donates their trucks to move product, and the media constantly recognizes and even praises these efforts. Pretty soon, the public does not see anything else but this solution. No one is talking about poverty or the public sector's role. We need a new analysis, a new frame of reference, and new policies.
Belmont, Mass.: Are there specific problems in our corporate tax codes that make it more profitable for a company to underpay its workers while donating to the community? I'm thinking specifically of companies like Target and Wal-Mart, which pride themselves in giving to the community but don't pay much above minimum wage to the bulk of their workers.
Mark Winne: I'm not able to comment on the corporate tax code, but what you suggest is worth exploration. I do know that the companies like you suggest use a variety of public relations gimmicks to camouflage their low-wage, low health insurance benefits. A food stamp director in New Mexico told me that he was seeing a growth in food stamp applications because the only industry in his area were several Wal-Marts. They have shifted responsibility of providing for their employees to the public sector.
Mark Winne: Thank you all for a spirited, and for me anyway, exhausting conversation. I learned much and hope we can continue in other forums. In the meantime, get engaged in public policy, don't forget the needy this Thanksgiving, and read "Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty" due out in January.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.