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The Need for Change: Why the Current System Fails to Feed America

July 30, 2010

By John Arnold, Feeding America: West Michigan (March 30, 2010)

Lyndon Johnson’s now much-maligned “War on Poverty” was so successful in the food/hunger arena, that by the early to mid 1970’s most of the charity food assistance programs that had existed prior to then went out of business because they were no longer needed. So when hunger returned to America in 1978-82 as a result of the nation suffering a very sharp, severe recession, and double-digit inflation (which reduced the income of at-risk people by about 60% in just four years) followed by the Reagan Administration’s roll-back of many social programs, a new generation of food assistance agencies came into existence.

Because this new generation of food aid agencies came into existence within the same four-year period, they were all generally influenced by the same needs, beliefs, trends, etc. and so they developed remarkably similar policies and procedures across the country.

Food needed to be acquired via agencies’ supporters buying and donating it, or via food drives, as at the time there really wasn’t anywhere else to get it. What food agencies sought was generally decided by a committee of the agencies Board or staff making a list of what it would take to provide a needy family with food enough for three days’ worth of meals. Three days was deemed the “right” amount because Food Stamps were believed to be available to anyone who applied for them within three days of applying. Similarly, it was deemed adequate/appropriate to give needy families that three-day supply once a month because that is how often Food Stamps, welfare benefits, Social Security checks, etc. were given out. And last but not least, it was deemed necessary/prudent to rigorously screen persons asking for help so as to protect the agency from being “scammed” by any of those “welfare queens” President Reagan warned the nation about.

As charity food aid services in the U.S. are generally provided by faith-based organizations, the above practices quickly solidified into “traditions”: “the way our church has always done it”. So by the mid to late 1990’s when food banks began to reach their stride and became able to provide charity food programs with most of their food for a tiny fraction of the cost of food drive/store purchased food, a logjam quickly developed 1) because getting food from the area’s food bank wasn’t “the way our church has always done it”, and 2) because food banks often would get and have products that weren’t on those three days’ worth of meals lists that were “the way our church has always done it”.

No sooner had that phenomenon developed that in Kent County, Michigan the Heart of West Michigan United Way invested $264,000 in researching how communities like it could adequately address their hunger problem. That ultimately international award-winning research (the 1994-96 Waste Not Want Not Project) quickly zeroed in on the above two issues as adding untold millions of dollars to the cost of meeting the need, and identified a number of other barriers that were keeping communities from being able to solve their hunger problem: While the average household in the U.S. needs to go to the grocery store 2.2 times per week, most pantries were holding to their “once a month” tradition for poor people. While the average client interviewed during the Waste Not Want Not research needed seven to ten days’ worth of food aid, most pantries were holding to their “3-days’ worth of food” tradition. The issue of anyone’s “scamming” food pantries for food was found to be a non-issue, but in trying to guard against being victimized as rigorously as they were, pantries were repelling as many as 40% of those who genuinely needed food aid. The old food lists were causing pantries to shun as much as 80% of the food available from the area’s food bank. And in giving out standardized food boxes without regard to what individual households could use, pantries were creating food waste levels of as much as 50%.

Until and unless those practices could be replaced with new methods – agencies collecting money instead of food from their supporters, agencies drawing their food from the food bank instead of from stores, agencies taking and offering clients the full range of products that are available and permitting them to make their own selections as often as they need to based solely on the clients’ profession of need – it was determined by the research that the cost was too high and the distributions were too small to ever meet the need.

So what happens when a community decides to come together in meetings to decide what to do about the hunger problem? The room fills with representatives of agencies whose traditions are what need to change. And they democratically adopt ideas that will support their preserving their traditions. And nothing changes…….

Needed change will only come from above (for example, the Fremont Area Community Foundation’s forcing the needed change in Newaygo County) or from having the critical planning done not by service-providers, but rather by service-users. Then instead of the centrifugal force’s being “how can we continue to preserve our traditions?”, it would be/should be “what would actually meet our needs?”. One suspects “once a month” would not pass muster. Nor would “three days’ worth of food”. Or “only food that is on the list”. Or any of the rest of the “traditional” practices.

Charity food aid agencies would immediately protest that they can’t afford to give out that much help, but that is only because of their under-utilization of the food bank, and preference for food drives instead of fund drives.

Individual agencies have made some of the needed changes in their practices, but still in 2010 the majority of charity food aid agencies are reflecting the realities and beliefs of 1980 in how they acquire and dispense food. And it doesn’t matter how many emergency needs task forces, delta strategies, community food security summits, etc. a community has around the issue of hunger, so long as the room fills with people committed to defending “the way their church has always done it”, nothing will change, and hunger will remain an unmet need.

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