Burdening Food Banks with the Charity of Waste
By Jocelyn Meyer
Government Department, Colby College
This paper examines the structural issues represented by the Farmers to Families Food Box (FFFB) initiative rolled out by the U.S. government in response to rising levels of food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. It addresses some of the concerns brought about in a letter written by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Departmental Operations revealing the inefficacy and problems associated with the government and agribusiness’ overdependence on food charity to address the structural issue of hunger. I argue that the normalized outlook and treatment of food charity as “win-win-win” scenarios by these actors are ultimately ineffective, perpetuating existing food system injustices that disproportionately burden low-income communities of color. The middle to high-income and corporate conceptualization of food waste as “charity” for the poor presents a problematic paradigm that allows neoliberal ideologies to continue deepening inequality, poverty, and injustice in society.
For much of the past century, imagery depicting American agriculture has portrayed a bucolic scene, with farmers cultivating amber fields of grain, cows pasturing in abundant open space, and happy families sitting down to Sunday roast. The reality of the modern United States food system today, however, is mountains of excess corn, fields of rotting onions, hundreds of thousands of smashed unhatched eggs, and millions of hungry Americans. The reality is that retail waste from large food corporations run by wealthy individuals often become primary food sources of the poor. The reality is the continuous production of cheaply made, high-calorie, low-nutrient foods at the expense of long-term health for marginalized communities. It is the continued expansion of wealth for the richest few and perpetual hunger for the poor who are offered only stopgap solutions. It is growing lines of disenfranchised Americans, many of them from communities of color, waiting for retail waste at food banks to meet their critical needs. [i] The reality is neoliberal capitalism, or the privatization of basic human rights to serve free-market goals that benefit primarily the wealthy few, an ideology woven into the fabric of our modern U.S. food system that perpetuates hunger and poverty in America. [ii]
Maine has the highest level of food insecurity in the New England region. Data from 2020 shows 6.9% of older adults in Maine are at risk of hunger, and 18% of children in Maine live at or below the poverty level. [iii] Additionally, food insecurity for families headed by people of color in Maine doubles when compared to the rate experienced by white, non-Hispanic households, and is compounded by other barriers including higher rates of diabetes and heart disease with restricted access to healthy and nutritious foods. [iv] Despite the desperate need for food among many families across America, studies have shown that up to 40% of produce in the U.S. goes to waste, a percentage that has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. [v] Vegetables, dairy, and prepared foods have perished as farmers see no outlet for their services in the time of a global shutdown. [vi] In the face of these untreated tumors of poverty and hunger embedded in the modern food system, exacerbated by the pandemic, the government rolled out the Farmers to Families Food Box (FFFB) Program. In a hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry in July 2020, Greg Ibach, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs appointed by former President Donald Trump, stated:
In just a few short weeks, USDA stood up the Farmers to Families Food Box (FFFB) Program as a new and innovative multi-billion dollar COVID response program to address three critical needs simultaneously: to provide markets for farmers faced with declining demand and the crisis of food rotting in fields and animals being euthanized; the food needs of newly unemployed Americans; and helping put suppliers and distributors back to work… As Secretary Perdue has stated on multiple occasions, the program is a “win-win-win.”
Greg Ibach, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Hearing Before the House Committee on Agriculture [vii]
July 21, 2020
While the effort to help farmers, families, and workers may have been well-intentioned, Ibach’s testimony was eerily reminiscent of a leaked World Bank Memo from the 1990s, wherein Lawrence Summers, former Under Secretary of the U.S. Treasury for International Affairs, used a laissez-faire and similarly neoliberal market rationale to propose the disposal of industrial waste in developing countries. In the memo, Summers states:
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that… I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles… Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?
Lawrence Summers, Confidential World Bank Memo [viii]
December 12, 1991
In both cases, the message is the same: there is money to be made in reallocating or dumping “waste” in marginalized communities. The convenient solution to managing the unprofitable but unavoidable byproducts of modern food production and consumption is to reframe it as “charity” for the poor in order to allow for the continuation and dominance of free market ideologies. As COVID-19 interrupts supply chains across the nation forcing the closure of food service businesses, schools, hotels, and restaurants, many farmers are left with little choice but to dump millions of pounds of milk and produce into landfills. [ix] Rather than watch these foods lose value as they turn to agricultural “waste” in landfills, the USDA found an opportunity to reframe such waste as “aid” for the approximate 17.1 million individuals predicted to become food insecure amid the pandemic. The government thus rolled out its program to “purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products” to package into boxes that would be transported to food banks and other forms of community non-profits “serving Americans in need.” [x] This national operation would be conducted under “multimillion-dollar contracts” established with the USDA for companies that appear to have “little experience working with food banks or farmers.” [xi]
To clarify, redirecting food from landfills to hungry families in a time of financial crisis is not itself an affront to justice. Indeed, without this assistance and the charity of millions who volunteer at these shelters, many of America’s most vulnerable would be in danger of starvation. However, in a letter written by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Departmental Operations, the challenges of our reliance on food banks as the “foundation of the US emergency food system” becomes apparent. [xii] While recognizing the tremendous charity of food banks and their volunteers, institutionalizing a temporary solution to the structural issue of food insecurity and hunger increasingly and disproportionately plagues low-income communities of color. In doing so, such programs reallocate food waste to our most vulnerable populations without addressing the drivers of food insecurity in the first place. This further burdens the poor while creating lucrative markets for corporate food producers and distributors.
The ironic truth behind this system of “food aid” channeled through food banks to U.S. families in need, described by representatives of the USDA as “win-win-win” scenario, is that it likely compounds structural harms on low-income communities by failing to address the causes of poverty while adding the extra burden of food waste into these communities. In the sections that follow, I explore this point in more depth by examining the current “corporate complex” that perpetuates poverty and food insecurity. [xiii] My aim is to describe the overdependence of government and corporate agribusinesses on food charity to address the structural issue of hunger. I argue that the normalized outlook and treatment of food charity as a “win-win-win” scenario by these actors are ultimately ineffective and instead perpetuate existing food system injustices that disproportionately burden low-income communities of color with both a lack of food and the responsibility for waste disposal. The middle to high-income and corporate conceptualization of food waste as “charity” for the poor presents a problematic paradigm that allows neoliberal ideologies to continue deepening inequality, poverty, and injustice in society.
Food Banks as “Disposal Sites” for Food Waste
In the House Committee on Agriculture’s letter of concerns over the USDA’s FFFB program, the committee highlights incidents of “spoiled food” delivery that “food banks did not coordinate” being delivered at their doorstep. [xiv] The over-supply of food to food banks that end up as waste is not unprecedented. Rather, this concern echoes problems associated with the integration of retail chains into the food banking supply system during the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, emergency food networks have had to reconfigure their organizational structures by increasing labor (often unpaid and volunteer) and adding more storage facilities, while remaining frequently underfunded. Items that the emergency food network receive from retailers are often those that are “overproduced, obsolete inventory, or simply waste.” [xv] A volunteer at an emergency food agency (EFA) in West Virginia, for example, commented on her experience redistributing retail waste donations by stating:
We have to distribute 25 pallets/day just to keep up [with the constant supply]. Monday is a holiday but we will still pick up. We run all year long, except black Friday because we just can’t accommodate [retail waste] then. Agencies are soaking food up because it’s never been available like this before. Perishables, fruits, vegetables, meat wasn’t out there before. Now with the retail program, most stores just donate. It’s something they can do, their company pushes it. [xvi]
As the FFFB Program rolls out financial contracts with companies – many of whom have never worked with food banks before and are largely unequipped to distribute to these organizations – food banks face new strains on their already overburdened infrastructure. Such companies include event planning specialists known for throwing “high-end conferences” with little or no contractional experience delivering aid to food banks. [xvii] To cater to this new supply of perishable items being donated by retailers, food banks have had to increase their storage capacity for new goods well above what they had before the pandemic. Eric Cooper, President and CEO of San Antonio Food Bank, testified before the House Committee on Agriculture in response to the new FFFB Program:
[The FFFB Program] also resulted in food banks shouldering more of the distribution burden than USDA had intended. Many food banks have hired additional staff, rented warehouse and refrigeration space, and rented trucks to handle the additional food. Other food banks have not been able to afford to invest in these additional capabilities and have had to turn some of the food offered through the program down due to lack of capacity.” [xviii]
Beyond the burden of receiving, sorting, and storing an oversupply of donations, the FFFB Program highlights the binding challenges volunteers face working for a “food waste accounting regime” that offers significant financial benefit to those who donate. Giving “foods that threaten to flood and disrupt agriculture markets” a new life as charitable donations to food banks provides agribusinesses tax benefits and “artificial price points” while cutting the cost of waste disposal and helping them to further profit from their positively reinforced public image. [xx] Emergency food network volunteers and employees, who are often underpaid or unpaid due to the financial limitations of EFAs, express dissatisfaction meeting duties bound by contracts:
We have a contractual obligation with Feeding America and we pass those on to the agencies. It reflects poorly on us if they don’t report, we need more training for agencies to make them understand why numbers are important. If agencies don’t report a Walmart pick up it looks like that store didn’t give any food away, their corporate [office] can’t get the tax write off […]. If you don’t report this free food, [retail stores] will stop giving it to you, and we will have to switch to an agency that is willing to report. [xxi]
While food bank employees are unable to decline unhealthy or spoiled foods due to these contractional obligations, low-income consumers themselves already face limitations in purchasing healthy foods at the supermarket. To avoid wasting money on perishable items, many resort to purchasing convenience foods, frozen “meals, pizzas, packaged baked goods, and canned soup” as opposed to fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid wasting money on perishable items. [xxii] While financial stability enables middle to high-income consumers to exercise their freedom of choice in the market and select higher, more nutritious foods, low-income families are unable to adequately satisfy such needs. To them, food is an issue of cost and accessibility, “luxuries they can seldom afford [in their] persistent efforts to access nutritious foods with inadequate income.” [xxiii] While food waste may be perceived by high to middle income consumers and corporations as “relief” for the poor, to low-income households, food waste presents a continual daily predicament.
To volunteers, food banks increasingly resemble “regifting depots” which rely on donations and volunteers from a “compassionate community” while the “heartless bureaucratic state” fuels an economic system in which the less privileged are continually disadvantaged. [xxiv] As a volunteer describes, “We are just feeding the line, not shortening [it].” [xxv] The goal of the food emergency system and its respective policies should thus be reevaluated to increase the stable supply of nutritious foods by empowering communities while reducing the necessity to supply free foods and waste proportionately. As Mary Robinson, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change described in 2004, “the right food is not about giving away free food to everyone.” [xxvi] Upholding commitments to protect citizen justice includes holding social, economic, and political institutions accountable to ensure all citizens have adequate physical and economic access to nutritious foods without being dependent on corporate food waste.
Invisible Harm, Invisible Waste
The FFFB Program also fails to address another layer of harm presented by food insecurity and food charity. Studies show that decreased food security leads to proportional decreases in nutrition levels, frequently associated with “anemia, asthma, poor cognitive performance, and behavior problems.” [xxvii] Meanwhile, a new hypothesis demonstrates how “increased intake of inexpensive, high-caloric foods” combined with “skipping meals and intermittent hunger leads to psychological changes” and obesity. [xxviii] Data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) revealed that between 1999 and 2016 the number of women with obesity who were also food insecure rose from 12% at the beginning of the study to 25% by the end. Meanwhile, for men with obesity experiencing food insecurity, a comparable increase from 9% to 20% occurred. [xxix] As food delivered to food aid stations frequently lack nutrition, families who rely on food banks are often unable to meet necessary nutrition standards from their source of emergency aid.
Importantly, the issue of food insecurity is not equally distributed across the landscape. The NHANES reported much higher levels of food insecurity amongst Black and Hispanic participants between 2015 and 2016 compared to their White counterparts. [xxx] These disparities apply also to children, 14 million of which “go hungry in the United States every day.” [xxxi] COVID-19 has proved especially disastrous for children of low-income who received half of their caloric intake from school meals prior to the pandemic. With schools closing and classes moving online, children’s food insecurity in the United States has reached its highest in decades, the worst impacts of which are felt by Black and Brown populations. In addition, children who experience food insecurity in their elementary school years are more likely to “experience developmental issues” such as motor and social skill deficiencies. [xxxii] COVID-19 has already revealed racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities along almost every line of access to fundamental human rights.
The fact that the overwhelming “charity” of the rich has yet to solve long-term hunger – and in many cases compounds harm in struggling communities by dumping more waste on them – reveals how deeply embedded the challenges of poverty and hunger are in American food systems. Programs like FFFB designed to serve as “win-win-win” opportunities fall short by refusing to acknowledge that the “winning” for families in need further perpetuate their food insecurity by failing to address challenges that lead to hunger in the first place. Moreover, these programs add significant burden to volunteer food banks, while simultaneously creating new and highly profitable markets that by design rely on maintaining populations in poverty. We need to re-evaluate the role of the state and its reliance on food banks to address the roots of hunger and poverty in our modern neoliberal food system that normalizes the overproduction of waste and inequality.
Conclusion and Personal Reflections
In my own journey to better understanding the issue of food waste, I initially took a similar market-based approach as did Ibach. To address campus food waste, I proposed repurposing bananas that might get discarded as food waste from college cafeterias into healthy ice cream through a social venture initiative. The goal was to create awareness for the issue of food waste and inspire students to question their waste footprint on campus. Learning more about our food system, its supply chains and logistics, however, I began to question whether free-market economy-based solutions would really help solve the fundamental issue of “waste.” Our food system is designed to overproduce, overconsume, and meet the desires of Americans who demand cheap foods. We need to critically re-evaluate these norms in our modern food system in order to guarantee equitable access to healthy and affordable foods.
Market solutions to food waste stemming from our current economic system and its dependency on programs such as the FFFB Program continue the cycle of disparity. To move towards a more regenerative economy that meets food security and nutritional needs, solutions must be addressed from outside of the market system. Individuals must be viewed as citizens rather than consumers, and our economic food system must work for all communities despite class, race, or gender rather than against. Most importantly, this means identifying and amplifying the voices of those on the frontlines, particularly food bank workers and low-income communities of color to better assess their needs and nurture a “just transition” towards food sovereignty, justice, and security for all.
Lawrence Summers, in his laissez-faire paradigm, compares global capital markets to jet planes:
Global capital markets pose the same kinds of problems that jet planes do. They are faster, more comfortable, and they get you where you are going better. But the crashes are more spectacular. [xxxiii]
Planes, and our economy, under Summers’ neo-liberal paradigm run on money: a “fictitious commodity,” as described by Karl Polanyi in his 1944 book, The Great Transformation, that replaced the direct exchange of services with a utopic and imagined market commodity and now drives human behavior and works outside of our selves. The real fuel that these jet planes run on are the labor and natural resources and of the poor. At some point, nature will either run out of resources and the plane may crash or people may take control of the cockpit and land it safely at a point when we still have time to preserve what is left of our resources.
Relying on privatized food banks to address the food needs of an increasing population of food insecure Americans is both unsustainable and inadequate. Questioning the now prevalent and increasing dependency on food banks is critical to reassert food insecurity and hunger as a top priority on the political agenda. Such critical analysis begins with confronting our own production of food waste and recognizing its intersectionality in the context of class, race, ethnicity, and gender. As the issue of food waste becomes increasingly visible, so will the inequalities entrenched in structural food insecurity that fuel our current food regime. Maine can pioneer these movements to consider social justice implications of waste and re-evaluate its systemic roots within our modern economic system.
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[iv] Myall, J. (2019, December). MECEP Issue Brief: Food Insecurity in Maine. Maine Center for Economic Policy. Retrieved from https://www.mecep.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/MECEP-Hunger-Issue-Brief-2019.pdf
[vi] Yaffe-Bellany, D., & Corkery, M. (2020, April 11). Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html
[vii] An Overview of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program: Hearing Before the House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations (July 21, 2020) (testimony of Greg Ibach, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, USDA). Available at: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AG/AG03/20200721/110913/HHRG-116-AG03-Wstate-IbachG-20200721.pdf
[viii] Nixon, R. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Gld ed.). Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press.
[ix] Yaffe-bellany, D., & Corkery, M. (2020, April 11). Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html
[x] An Overview of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program: Hearing Before the House Committee on Agriculture, (testimony of Greg Ibach, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, USDA).
[xi] U.S. House of Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Departmental Operations Subcommittee. (2020). Letter of Concern Addressing Mismanagement and Political Nature of Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Available at: https://agriculture.house.gov/uploadedfiles/farmers_to_families_food_box_10_09_20.pdf
[xii] Handforth, B., Hennink, M., & Schwartz, M. B. (2013). A Qualitative Study of Nutrition-Based Initiatives at Selected Food Banks in the Feeding America Network. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, 113(3), 411–415. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.jand.2012.11.001
[xiii] Lohnes, J., & Wilson, B. (2018). Bailing out the food banks? Hunger relief, food waste, and crisis in Central Appalachia. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(2), 363.
[xiv] U.S. House of Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Departmental Operations Subcommittee. (2020). Letter of Concern
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[xvii] Evich, H. B., and McCrimmon, R. (2020, May 14). Multimillion-dollar food bank delivery contracts go to firms with little experience. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/13/usda-food-bank-contracts-256452
[xviii] An Overview of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program: Hearing Before the House Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations (July 21, 2020) (testimony of Eric Cooper, President and CEO, San Antonio Food Bank). Available at: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AG/AG03/20200721/110913/HHRG-116-AG03-Wstate-CooperE-20200721.pdf
[xix] Pykeren, S. (2020, April 13). These photos show the staggering food bank lines across America. Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/food/2020/04/these-photos-show-the-staggering-food-bank-lines-across-america/
[xx] Lohnes, J., & Wilson, B. (2018). Bailing out the food banks? Hunger relief, food waste, and crisis in Central Appalachia. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(2), 353.
[xxi] Lohnes, J., & Wilson, B. (2018). Bailing out the food banks? Hunger relief, food waste, and crisis in Central Appalachia. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(2), 361.
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[xxiii] L Beagan, B., Chapman, G. E., & Power, E. M. (2016). Cultural and Symbolic Capital With and Without Economic Constraint: Food shopping in low-income and high-income Canadian families. Food, Culture & Society, 19(1), 64.
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[xxv] Lohnes, J., & Wilson, B. (2018). Bailing out the food banks? Hunger relief, food waste, and crisis in Central Appalachia. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50(2), 361.
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[xxviii] Bird, M. E. S. (2020). Food Insecurity in the US Increasingly Linked to Obesity. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/food-insecurity-in-the-us-increasingly-linked-to-obesity
[xxix] Myers, C. A. (2020, August 7). Trends in Adiposity and Food Insecurity Among US Adults. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2769137
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[xxxii] Bird, M. E. S. (2020). Food Insecurity in the US Increasingly Linked to Obesity
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