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Activist and author discusses ‘unholy alliance’ between corporations and anti-hunger groups

 

Presbyterian Hunger Program co-sponsors Big Hunger event at University of Louisville

By Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Author and food activist Andrew Fisher speaks to University of Louisville students about the emergency food system. Andrew Kang Barlett

LOUISVILLE – Can million-dollar donations to anti-hunger groups be a bad thing? Should Christians who are called to serve and work toward eliminating hunger and poverty in our communities question corporate generosity as a viable tool to achieve a faithful goal? Food activist and author Andrew Fisher presented these questions and more at a University of Louisville event on September 4 that was co-sponsored by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Fisher spoke to an audience of approximately 50 graduate and undergraduate students and a smaller number of community members interested in hunger issues, detailing the “unholy alliance” that exists between corporate America and anti-hunger organizations.

Fisher, who has worked in the anti-hunger field for 25 years and is the author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, traces current anti-hunger policies back to the early 1980s, when recession and cutbacks to federal programs in President Ronald Reagan’s administration led to the growth of food charities. The charity and the anti-hunger programs spawned by it were supposed to be a temporary solution to a critical problem, but it resulted in an emergency food system that became big business.

Andrew Kang Bartlett, the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s associate for national hunger concerns, said that the system of food banks, pantries and meal programs that grew out of that era provided a very compelling cause — lots of people wanted to volunteer and businesses donated substantial amounts of money to help.

“For compassionate people and people of faith, it’s a great draw to be addressing individuals who are hungry in their community,” said Kang Bartlett. “But instead of anti-hunger programs remaining a temporary fix for people experiencing hunger, it became established and the focus rather than addressing the poverty that causes hunger. Unless you address the social and economic problems that cause hunger today, those individuals will be back again tomorrow and so on.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program co-sponsored a Big Hunger event at the University of Louisville. “U of L Today” host Mark Hebert (left) did a video segment with Andrew Fisher.  Andrew Kang Bartlett

In his 45-minute presentation, Fisher provided examples of the type of collusion that keeps the hunger industrial complex proliferating in today’s market. Walmart donates massive amounts of money to anti-hunger groups while simultaneously being the No. 1 recipient of food stamps in America. They make $1 in profit for every $5 they take in from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 2016, that 20 percent take netted Walmart approximately $10 billion in government subsidies.

“The hunger industrial complex is when Walmart donates millions to anti-hunger groups for outreach programs to increase the number of eligible persons receiving SNAP. It’s when a food bank in a red state refuses to fight for SNAP or a higher minimum wage because its largest corporate donor has threatened to pull its funding if it goes down that path,” said Fisher. “The Food Research and Action Center advocates for more people to be able to use their SNAP benefits at Taco Bell and KFC because their advocacy builds a stronger base of support for SNAP. Food banks gratefully accept tens of thousands of pounds of excess pork produced by Smithfield factory farms, the sites of lawsuits by multiple low-income rural communities of color in North Carolina who claim to have been poisoned by the toxic fumes from hog manure lagoons.”

Females, children and people of color are disproportionately hungry and poor, so the Presbyterian Hunger Program also addresses poverty, especially in the U.S. Per Kang Bartlett, the wage issue needs to be raised because people don’t have enough money to afford sufficient and healthy food. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in a “food desert” that doesn’t provide access to affordable and healthy options. Sexism, racism, class issues and economic disparities create the poor in society, he said.

There are more than 60,000 emergency food programs across the country connected to Feeding America, a major hunger-relief organization, and two-thirds of those are connected to houses of worship.

“Clearly Christians are eager to alleviate hunger; it’s throughout the Bible,” said Kang Bartlett. “At the same time, we’re called to work on eliminating poverty and resolving issues that make people poor. Andy Fisher’s critique resonates with us. Like him, we say ‘yes’ to congregations and others around the country that are compassionately, faithfully feeding people and we encourage them through various ways to work on the underlying issues that perpetuate hunger.”

The other side of the hunger coin is the ongoing obesity epidemic. Because of farm policies, the current system encourages the overproduction of surplus commodity crops.

“We have a glut of calories per capita, so we’ve had to increase the caloric intake of Americans in order to take care of all that extra production,” said Kang Bartlett. “The big food corporations like ADM and Cargill take the corn and soybeans and turn it into sugary and processed food, which are the cheapest calories for people on a budget. Not only are they cheap and fattening, they are also addictive.”

Fisher did note that many food bank and pantry staff are committed to their communities, mentioning the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona as an example of an organization reinventing the emergency food system in real time. But he’s also seen an ugly downside.

“I was surprised by the racism inherent in the emergency food system,” said Fisher. “As a white volunteer at a food pantry, I became ensnared in the toxic charity trap, acting as a security guard to make sure the clients, often people of color, didn’t take an extra bag of spaghetti or package of hamburger.”

During his visit to Louisville, Fisher spoke to FORward Radio’s Sustainability Now program. Listen here on SoundCloud. 

The Presbyterian Hunger Program offers resources for congregations and individuals interested in learning about and advocating for hunger and poverty issues. The Just Eating Bible study explores the relationship between faith and our food. Adult and middle school versions are available in English and Spanish to buy or as a free download.

The Community Food Assets: Taking an Inventory is a way for youth groups or adult groups to take an inventory on who is doing what around meeting people’s needs about hunger and poverty.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is able to share God’s love with our neighbors-in-need around the world because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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