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Why Can't America Solve the Hunger Problem?

In many metropolitan areas, the food bank is viewed as a vital and beloved community institution. Companies send teams of volunteers down around the holidays to sort through canned soups and boxed macaroni. Can drives at schools and offices warm the hearts of those who give and fill the shelves of food banks and pantries. To most, the food bank is utterly non-controversial, revered on both the political left and right for its steady work helping to feed the roughly 40 million Americans who sometimes wonder where their next meal will come from.

The longtime Portland, Oregon-based anti-hunger activist Andy Fisher tells a different story in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Fisher, a founder of the National Food Security Coalition, writes that food banks and other anti-hunger organizations (as well as federal programs) are far too cozy with big corporations. He describes the result as “toxic charity” that has barely moved the needle on American food insecurity in more than 30 years.

CityLab sat down with Fisher to hear more about why he views much of the emergency food system as unhelpful—and what can be done to improve it.

How has our approach to addressing food insecurity changed over time?

In the early 1980s, there was a large recession. The Reagan administration came in and slashed federal programs such as food stamps. There was a decline in manufacturing jobs. So what had been just a few food banks around the country grew dramatically to about 180 by the end of the decade.

We began to really embark on a charity approach as a more serious attempt to address what was considered to be an emergency at the time—which is why it was called the “emergency food system.” But that emergency never really went away. It just became institutionalized, and there’s been a permanent amount of food insecurity around the country since then. That’s one approach.

Another approach was welfare reform [under the] Clinton administration. That also reinforced the need for a charity approach because it lifted the government’s role in providing for basic income for the most impoverished people in the country.

Since then, charity has become much more institutionalized. Nearly 5 billion pounds of food a year gets distributed through food banks. There are more than 200 food banks in the Feeding America network. They have become, in many ways, a dependent of the food industry.

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