Why Food Waste Can Only Remedy—Not Solve—America’s Hunger Problem

By Lisa Elaine Held

This piece was originally published on the
Food Tank website. Food Tank is a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

Critiquing charity work is a tricky business, especially when said charities are feeding hungry families.

But in his new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, food security expert Andrew Fisher argues that it’s time to take a deeper look at what the anti-hunger movement is really achieving in the U.S.

While American food banks were originally envisioned as way to provide relief during emergency situations (like during severe economic downturns and natural disasters), they’ve become massive operations over the last few decades.

Funded by corporate donors like Walmart and Target, most organizations (with some exceptions) pull at potential donors’ heart strings using stories of “hunger,” while largely ignoring the underlying conditions that cause food insecurity in America, like low wages and lack of adequate health benefits. Many of those conditions are created by the same companies that are making large donations to anti-hunger groups, which masks the fact that their own employees are the ones struggling to put food on the table and prevents charities from delving into those issues, lest they lose funding. Hence, the existence of what Fisher calls the “hunger industrial complex.”

“By not coupling short-term hunger relief with structural reform, anti-hunger leaders have reinforced the false notion that hunger can be solved through charity, while diminishing our collective ability to make the deeper reforms,” Fisher writes.

And food waste is an integral part of the bigger picture Fisher paints in his critique. While giving out food waste to the poor has long been used as a solution to food insecurity, Fisher says the moral imperative around reducing waste has also contributed to the never-ending nature of the problem.

“The charitable food system exists at the intersection of waste and want,” he explains. “Driven by inefficiencies in the supply chain, it was invented as a morally preferable alternative to throwing away ‘perfectly good food.’”

We caught up with him to talk more about the complicated connection between food waste and anti-hunger efforts.

Food Tank (FT): How important is the food waste issue to your overall argument about the problems with the current anti-hunger movement?

Andrew Fisher (AF): To me, it’s an indicator of the degree to which food banks are adapting to the industrial food system. That’s the importance and significance of it really, and it’s also an in indignity issue. It’s an indicator of the way we think about and deal with hunger in this country. If we’re going to give people food waste in whatever form it might be, healthy or not, I do think it’s not the most dignified of solutions, and it points to the way we think about the hunger problem in a very downstream kind of way.

FT: I’d imagine people argue that worrying about dignity is not as important as getting food to hungry people.

AF: Yes, we have this concept of hunger in this country, and I run into this idea all the time: “Well, if they’re hungry, they should eat anything.” It’s not that people are starving in America; it’s not that people are dying of famine. That’s not the issue. The issue is chronic food insecurity, a chronic lack of enough money to buy healthy food. The issue is that people run out of food at the end of the month. Obviously there are gradations and there are people in more severe conditions than others, but you know, by and large, it’s not Ethiopia in the 1970s. It’s not a one-time thing. For many people, it’s a chronic in-and-out situation. They flow in and out depending on their employment situation.

FT: How do you think the concept of hunger needs to change?

AF: One thing is that nearly every country in the world except the U.S. has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR) that says food is a human right. If food is a human right, that means that people deserve it. They deserve to get it and acquire it in a dignified way. Charity is inherently undignified and inherently unsustainable. If we want food to be a human right, people can’t be getting it through charity. They have to be getting it through entitlements, through the money that they acquire through work, or government programs, or other kinds of transfers. The charity piece is anathema to a human rights framework.

FT: Speaking of frameworks, it struck me that the food waste movement tends to focus on “rescuing” food, and your argument seems to speak to the fact that we need to stop thinking about ending hunger as a rescue mission. Do you see a parallel in that the same mentality points away from more systemic solutions in both realms?

AF: The rescuing people from hunger is a very top-down approach that isn’t about building people’s political power. It isn’t about helping people achieve goals themselves. It’s about what we can do for people, not with people. Rescuing food is just a bizarre concept. To me, ultimately it’s an environmental argument; it’s about food going into the landfill. That’s what you’re rescuing it from, the garbage. The value of doing that is that you’re saving it from rotting in the landfill and giving it a higher purpose. That higher purpose allegedly is giving it to people. And certainly, giving food to people is better than it going in the garbage. It’s a hard thing to argue. But I think the question is: How is that food being used? What’s the best use of that rescued food? Could it be used for economic development? To use recovered food in that context [for economic development] makes more sense to me, for other social goods and other purposes that may still be going towards poor people, yes, but it’s also creating social value other than just giving it to people in a box.

FT: In the book, you lay out a vision for dismantling the hunger industrial complex. Are there recommendations you give for getting at the hunger problem in a more systemic way that overlap with reducing food waste?

AF: Food banks need to fundamentally transform the way they do business so that in a certain amount of time—20 years is what I said—they’re no longer just distributing food in a transactional way. It’s no longer just boxes and boxes and boxes of food to people. The aid goes to social service agencies and it goes to homeless shelters, etc., and that food is distributed for natural disasters, like Harvey, when it’s truly needed.

And you know, part of what’s driven the emergency food system, to date, has been waste in the system. The fact that there’s wasted food drives the moral imperative to distribute it. So, in some ways, you think, well, maybe the way to fundamentally transform food banks is to eliminate that waste.

This piece was originally published on the Food Tank website. Food Tank is a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

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