The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Hungry for Change, Visionaries Promote Alternatives to Foods Banks

by Kari Lydersen

While the mainstream turns its yearly eye to the plight of hungry people, Kari Lydersen takes a deeper look at the corporate-perpetuated food bank model through the eyes of critics seeking unconventional solutions.

Chicago; Dec. 24, 2004 – During the holidays you see lots of bins for food bank donations; you see lots of news stories about people eating their holiday meals at soup kitchens. In the richest country in the world, hunger is still obviously an ever-present and growing problem. But some community organizers are taking imaginative approaches to solving what otherwise appears to be a unending problem by empowering the hungry to take an active part in providing for their own needs.

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This year millions of people visited food banks or soup kitchens to avoid going hungry, many of them children and senior citizens. Though it is difficult to know how many people experience food insecurity each year, the US Department of Agriculture reported in 2003, the last year for which census numbers were available, that 12.6 million households did not have enough money for sufficient food. Of those, 3.9 million households experienced hunger during the year, while the rest had their needs met by government or community programs.

There is ample reason to believe that hunger in the United States was on the rise this year. The US Conference of Mayors’ recently released annual report on homelessness and hunger found that requests for food assistance were up in 96 percent of cities surveyed, and requests increased an average of 14 percent in each city. The report, which is based on surveys of state agencies and service providers, has found an increase in hunger every year since the mid-1980s.

And many people are increasingly relying on what were intended to be emergency food aid programs on a permanent basis.

"Our agencies have been telling us that in the last year they’ve seen an 11 percent increase in need," said Donna Larkin, communications director for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which supplies food to about 600 food banks and soup kitchens in the metropolitan area. "They’re seeing a lot more working poor families, husbands and wives who are both employed but just don’t earn enough or people who were laid off a few years ago who got jobs again but don’t make as much as they used to. When your income is strapped, food is one of the first things to go."

Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank in the Bay Area, California said they have seen requests for emergency assistance increase by 50 percent from last year to this year.

And many people are increasingly relying on what were intended to be emergency food aid programs on a permanent basis. Those in need of food aid include not only the unemployed and homeless but significant numbers of working people who cannot afford to pay for housing, medical care, utilities and other necessities out of their paycheck.

"Some months I cut it very tight with everything I need to do for my kids, and there isn’t money left over for enough food," said Elizabeth Porter, 26, who works several jobs as a medical assistant, waitress, janitor and nutritional consultant to support her four kids in Oakland. "A lot of times it’s a choice between paying the gas and electric or buying food, and those are both really important things."

A shortage of food has never been the problem. Rather distribution of and access to nutritious, healthy food and people’s ability to control their own nutrition is the real issue.

Food is often the first thing families skimp on when they are having trouble paying the bills, since failing to pay rent or utilities has longer range consequences like evictions or shut-offs.

Given the urgent and growing need, support for food banks and soup kitchens is critical. But those with a more progressive outlook note that a shortage of food has never been the problem, either on a national or global level. Rather distribution of and access to nutritious, healthy food and people’s ability to control their own nutrition is the real issue.

They point out that the definition of hunger overlooks the huge number of Americans who eat a diet of fast food and heavily refined snacks lacking in nutrients, since that is usually cheapest and easiest to access in poor neighborhoods where corner stores have largely replaced groceries. The common perspective on hunger also overlooks the larger issue of people’s disenfranchisement from food production and lack of control over their own food supply and health.

With these factors in mind, a recent report from the group Food First, called "Beyond the Food Bank," criticizes problems in the traditional food distribution model and calls instead for support of alternative, empowering food production projects like community gardens and urban household gardens, buying collectives and cooperative organic farms.

"We need to revisit what kind of society we want to have," said Christine Ahn, one of the study’s authors and a staffer at the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland. "We need to look at why these social programs [like food banks] were put in place in the first place, and how can we fund more alternative projects. We need to look at things like the Farm Bill and reallocate some of those resources to community projects."

EcoVIDA helps immigrant youth grow organic gardens, raise tilapia fish and compost with worms, providing them a source of food to consume and sell as well as a connection to the earth that is often lacking in city life.

"Beyond the Food Bank" argues that food banks are something of a band-aid solution rather than a holistic approach to ending hunger and that corporations take advantage of them as tax breaks and public relations vehicles. "Apart from providing food for millions, food banks also provide a tax shelter for corporations and agribusiness," reads the report, "corporations can deduct up to twice the cost of production for their donated products, encouraging these companies to send damaged goods or test products that would otherwise get thrown out. Not all of the donations are nutritious, and some aren’t even edible."

At least some food banks take exception to Food First’s assertions. Bateson said the Alameda County Community Food Bank offers a diversity of high quality food, including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and she thinks examples like those given in the report are relatively rare.

"Our food bank has the goal that 75 percent of the food needs to be nutritious, and we’re very mindful of balancing donations with purchased items to round out the stock," she said. "The majority of the food we distribute is nutrient heavy, like beans, rice, peanut butter, canned tuna, dried milk."

Few would dispute that food banks and soup kitchens play a crucial role in meeting people’s nutritional and economic needs. Nor do many suggest that fighting hunger should be an either-or approach. Along with strengthening a social safety net that includes food banks and soup kitchens, a plethora of alternative agriculture and food-related projects around the country provide low-income people a degree of control over their own food supply and also offer a connection to the land, a sense of community and job skills.

"Poverty and hunger do not necessarily correlate when a poor person has the ability to produce food," reads the Food First report. "A contemporary example of this historical truth is Cuba, where people are poor but have significant access to food through localized production, with easy access to seeds, fruit trees and technical assistance."

Victory Gardens not only introduces organic farming to low-income city dwellers but also uses the operation as a vehicle for political awareness and activism.

Examples of empowering alternative food projects in the US include the Milwaukee-based group Growing Power, which runs a large organic farm and supports community gardens on vacant lots in Milwaukee and Chicago. Along with farming and gardening, Growing Power participants can learn how to assess brown fields (land contaminated from past use) and learn organic techniques to restore them and make them safe for farming.

Growing Power derives funds from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. In a CSA program, subscribers -- sometimes known as shareholders -- pay a set amount in order to receive regular food baskets of current produce. Often CSAs, which exist all over the country, include more affluent members who help subsidize lower-income members.

Likewise, an urban ecology and farming project called EcoVIDA, located in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood, helps immigrant youth grow organic gardens, raise tilapia fish and compost with worms, providing them a source of food to consume and sell as well as a connection to the earth that is often lacking in city life. EcoVIDA founder Neris Gonzalez, an ecologist who fled repression in El Salvador, preaches a holistic way of looking at food, life and the earth, with the health of the environment and human bodies inextricably linked through the food we eat.

Another organization, Victory Gardens, based in urban New Jersey and Athens, Maine takes the concept to a wholly different level, not only introducing organic farming to low-income city dwellers but also using the operation as a vehicle for political awareness and activism. The project was founded by incarcerated Afrikan Liberation activist Herman Bell and environmentalists Carol Dove and Michael Vernon, based on the Black Panther Party’s survival programs and Malcolm X’s belief that all revolutionary struggles are centered around land.

Victory Gardens boasts that it produces about 12,000 pounds of produce on a two-acre farm in Maine every summer and distributes it in bags decorated with pleas for social justice and freedom for political prisoners. Inner city New Jersey residents and others who visit the farm not only learn about organic farming but also about specific prisoners’ struggles and ways to support them.

In Camden, New Jersey, activists established a soup kitchen called Leavenhouse in 1981, when food stamps were cut and unemployment rose. The project later became a cooperative, operated by the people it served. In exchange for a few hours of work in the kitchen or a $5 donation, members receive monthly meal tickets good for all of Leavanhouse’s meals, served six days a week. Leavanworth has expanded to include cooperative housing and engages in numerous activist projects.

On the opposite coast, the Garden-Raised Bounty (GruB) project in Olympia, Washington also empowers and supports community on a number of levels. The group constructs raised bed gardens for low-income families, enabling the growth of fruit, grains and vegetables for their own consumption. Since 1993 they have built over 1,300 gardens for local families. Supporters purchase beds or shares of beds to be donated to low-income families, and in the summer the project employs 15 low-income high school students in farming and building the beds. About half the food produced on the farm goes to local food banks and half is distributed through CSAs.

"It helps young people be aware they can grow their own food, which is a powerful statement," said Jackson Sillars, youth employment coordinator for GruB. "It definitely changes their perspective on food, in terms of being part of the process of growing food from planting the seeds to taking care of the garden to the harvest. You can see the cycle and feel connected to food, to see that it doesn’t just come from grocery stores."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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