My experience of 25 years in food banking has led me to conclude that co-dependency within the system is multifaceted and frankly troubling. As a system that depends on donated goods, it must curry favor with the nation's food industry, which often regards food banks as a waste-management tool. As an operation that must sort through billions of pounds of damaged and partially salvageable food, it requires an army of volunteers who themselves are dependent on the carefully nurtured belief that they are "doing good" by "feeding the hungry." And as a charity that lives from one multimillion-dollar capital campaign to the next (most recently, the Hartford food bank raised $4.5 million), it must maintain a ready supply of well-heeled philanthropists and captains of industry to raise the dollars and public awareness necessary to make the next warehouse expansion possible.
Food banks are a dominant institution in this country, and they assert their power at the local and state levels by commanding the attention of people of good will who want to address hunger. Their ability to attract volunteers and to raise money approaches that of major hospitals and universities. While none of this is inherently wrong, it does distract the public and policymakers from the task of harnessing the political will needed to end hunger in the United States.
The risk is that the multibillion-dollar system of food banking has become such a pervasive force in the anti-hunger world, and so tied to its donors and its volunteers, that it cannot step back and ask if this is the best way to end hunger, food insecurity and their root cause, poverty.
I rounded up my own receipts for food over the past month, and coffee to paper products, dawn to dusk, my expenses as a consumer of organic foods runs at $8.71 a day. The sniffs I hear already. Of course, non-organic and pesticide ridden, antibiotic dripping foods are about 30% cheaper... but that's only because you aren't calculating in the costs of chemotherapy. While cancer fatality rates are plummeting for breast cancer, they are accelerating for just about every other body part. So many of my fellow coworkers comment often on my organic lifestyle with the view that they could never afford it. So I took a little survey. The average cost of a McDonald's breakfast order among them? $6.87. Coffee. Juice. Sandwitch. Hashbrown. At the rate most of them eat, turning to the staple lure of the poor working class (fast food) for three meals a day would cost $21.00 a day before taxes or 4 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. All with a side order of heart disease and diabetes.
Leaving work today I passed a local Methodist church, and outside their walls stood a mingling crowd. Not for sunday school or services, but in lines for their own bags of food. In this roaring economy that we have. Demographically they were either elderly couples or young women. Yes, young women between the ages of 15-25 standing around in a line waiting for a cheap loaf of white bread and a few cans of soup. Even during the three months I ended up out of work due to a job injury last year, when I took one month's emergency assistance to avoid eviction, when I was down to my last three cans of soup, I couldn't take food from a food bank. I was lucky enough to get help from my mother, but not everyone ends up adult with a family left. I looked into their blank faces as I drove past, and tried to imagine what they stood their thinking in silence, neither looking to the right or to the left, each one as expressionless as the next. That's what I noticed, the lack of frenzy, the lack of consuming need, the lack of any feeling at all. I don't think they can imagine a way out of that food line, and I can only imagine the ends they'd choose if this last shred of respectability came to an end. Yet that glimpse is all the world gets to see of their plight, however horrible, however desperate, however needless.
I hold a high regard for the marketplace and hard work, but let's be real for a moment about the ability of capitalism to raise people up out of poverty and hunger. Most economists tell you that over the past 50 years, that the per captia income has risen "this much" and so life is better than it was before. Yes, the lives of the exceedingly wealthy and the lives of the working poor, canceled out against itself is the measure of economic growth. So no matter how many more people become more poor, as long as a few people become astronomically wealthy, "we all is doing better." We define as the unfettering of competition the fact that the minimum wage fell about 29 percent in real terms between 1979 and 2003, and ignore that it's highest purchasing power existed in 1968 at $1.60 an hour, or the equivalent of $9.12. I worked at Target in 2005, and the highest merit-based wage increase possible under corporate rules I could receive (and did) was .50 cents. Which translates into $20 more a paycheck, or $480 dollars a year. But gasoline increased $1 per gallon from 2004 to 2005, and organic milk increased $1.30 per gallon. Inflation left me paying $7-9 more a paycheck, almost having my merit raise. And there was no cost-of-living adjustment. But there's no calculation for this sort of economic stress, except the expectation that people should degrade their standard of living to the point where they eat $3 a day. We need a better way to fight poverty than the idea that corporate profits will end hunger and send us all to college.