Beyond the Food Bank

Brahm Ahmadi and Chrsitine Ahn | 10.01.2004

By Brahm Ahmadi and Christine Ahn, Fall 2004, Vol. 10, No. 4

The gift whose source is justice is greater than the gift from charity. – Kahlil Gibran

In 2002, 3.5 million people in the United States—the world’s richest nation and largest food exporter—worried about where their next meal was coming from. The facts that over one in ten fellow citizens did not have enough food to lead an active, healthy life and that 1.26 million more families worry about food than in 20002 would compel any compassionate American to want to find a real and lasting solution to our growing hunger crisis in the U.S. But political and business leaders and social service institutions continue to offer piecemeal and oftentimes self-serving proposals for ending hunger. The Bush administration’s latest proposal is the Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Act, which would expand tax deductions already given to corporations, farmers, and restaurants donating to food banks: The argument is that if we could salvage at least one percent of the 96 billion pounds of food Americans throw out each year, we could give it to the hungry in this country.

Such proposals won’t end hunger—in fact, ending hunger isn’t really what they are about. Although food banks are a vital emergency and safety net that keeps the hunger crisis at bay by providing food to people who would otherwise go hungry, they cannot address the root causes that perpetuate and exacerbate hunger in America today. Instead, our growing reliance on food banks may distract us from find ing lasting solutions to the hunger crisis. As food insecurity has increased in the United States, the demand for food banks and the pantries and shelters they serve has also developed and expanded. In 1979, America’s Second Harvest had thirteen food bank members; now there are approximately 200 affiliates in its network.

According to a twenty-five-city survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), requests for emergency food grew by 17 percent in 2002 alone. In a similar study in 2000, the USCM found that demand grew by 23 percent. In both studies, 14 percent of those seeking food and help were turned away due to lack of resources-and in both studies the leading cause of hunger was unemployment or low-paying jobs, followed by expensive housing costs.