Andy Fisher, long-time anti-hunger advocate, activist and author of “Big Hunger,” visited Rochester on March 21, spending the day with Foodlink and offering his critique of — and solutions for — the emergency food system.
In his book, which was released in 2017, Fisher argues that the current model of food banking is too reliant on charitable giving, and too intertwined with corporate interests. He says food banks need to stop measuring their successes on “people and pounds,” and need to figure out upstream solutions to “shorten the line,” rather than “feed the need.”
One innovative proposal, called Social Purpose Grocery (SPG), was folded into the discussion when Foodlink invited two consultants from the Toronto-based firm, Mushroom Cloud, down to join Andy for the day. Daniel Bernhard and George Carothers have done extensive research on how food banks and non-profit organizations need to enter the world of food retail and help food-insecure families maximize their assets and stretch their food dollars.
The day began with Fisher speaking with Foodlink staff for over an hour about his book, Foodlink’s programs, and other nonprofits that have developed innovative initiatives to target the root causes of hunger.
Next, after Bernhard and Carothers arrived, Executive Director Julia Tedesco led a tour of Foodlink’s Community Kitchen. The group learned about Foodlink’s Value-Added Processing operations, and our soon-to-launch workforce development program, before breaking for lunch.
Shortly before 1 p.m., it was off to the WXXI studio, where Fisher, Bernhard, Carothers and Chief Programs Officer Mitch Gruber were guests on Connections. Fisher’s book, SPGs and Foodlink’s Curbside Market were all discussed during the hour-long program, entitled: “Why haven’t we solved America’s hunger problem? (Listen to the replay here.)
Finally, after a little bit of down time, Foodlink hosted a panel discussion with our guests at Three Heads Brewing called “Beyond Charity: Ideas to transform our broken food system.”
Here are a few highlights from the discussion:
Andy Fisher on hunger: “Hunger is a symptom of a deeper problem — it’s a symptom of poverty. It’s not a matter of whether there is enough food in this country, it’s a matter of whether people have enough resources to buy that food. Poverty itself is obviously linked to make other structural issues, whether it be racism, sexism or a bad educational system … hunger is kind of a double-edged sword. It mobilizes people, but it also leads people toward shallow solutions. It leads people toward charity.”
Andy Fisher on charity: “… most people think, “Oh, the solution is food.” But that charity approach is not dignified, it’s disempowering, it can be degrading and unsustainable and it’s certainly not just. Charity is what society does when there is no justice.”
Daniel Bernhard on SPGs: “What we wanted to do was, start — not from a position of deficit and say, what are people missing? — We wanted to start by saying, “What have they got?” The $6.5 billion that food-insecure people in Canada spend on food every year is much, much bigger than the $1.7 (billion) that they’re missing. So our question was, instead of trying to fill that 1.7 billion-hole with charity that is unreliable, and unjust, and may not be nutritious and has all sorts of other problems and basically provides this garbage can to the commercial food sector that allows it to pay low wages and still look great, how can we take what people actually have and stretch it out?”
Andy Fisher on food banking: “I think of food bankers as good people trapped in a bad system. Food bankers talk about two different paradigms. One is ‘feeding the need’ — in other words, trying to pump through enough food to meet the needs of people who come to their door. And the other approach is ‘shortening the line.’ How do you reduce the number of people in poverty who are showing up to your door in the first place?”
Daniel Bernhard on charity: “It’s not stable … you can’t depend on it. When the economy is bad, people are least equipped to donate, and that’s when you need it the most. So it’s a difficult model. If you define people by what they lack, they just become passive recipients of service, and that’s not dignified, that’s not functional and it’s not sustainable and it will never, ever work to scale.”
Mitch Gruber on the future of food banking: “Food banks need to be drivers of community and economic development. I actually don’t think that food banks need to become obsolete, I would say we just need to be able to shift our operations significantly.”