The Struggle to Feed America

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Some 49 million people in the US lack access to healthy food. Food banks are trying to combat the problem by working to supply healthier choices.

Hunger in America is not the result of scarcity. The United States exports more agricultural products than it imports (a record $152.5 billion in 2014), and domestically it sells 30% more than consumers actually use (that’s how much is wasted each year—$162 billion worth of food that goes uneaten).

And yet, amidst all this plenty, 49 million Americans, about one in six, meets the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of food insecurity. The explanation of this paradox is as obvious as it is disheartening. “In so many ways, hunger is a synonym for poverty,” says Domenic Vitiello, a professor of city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. But understanding the cause does little to solve the problem. The battle against poverty may have gained some ground in the past few decades, but virtually no one believes we’re likely to win the war anytime soon.

So the immediate and urgent question is: What can be done to reduce hunger in the US now?

The most obvious approach is to simply provide hungry people with food. That’s what food banks have been doing since 1967, when the first one was started in Arizona. Today, Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, has a nationwide network of 200 food banks, large warehouses that distribute food to 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, which in turn package the food for local distribution to the poor. While this network alone provides 3 billion meals a year, the full impact of the nation’s food bank system is hard to determine. Feeding America represents only the largest programs. In fact, says Vitiello, “Small food banks are not allowed to be members of Feeding America at this point.”

One major source of public support for food banks is The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which both reimburses food banks for administrative costs and provides them with food. TEFAP’s larder is stocked by the USDA, which purchases surplus food from the companies that produce it. The original program began during the Great Depression in the 1930s as a way of helping both consumers who couldn’t afford to buy enough food and farmers who couldn’t sell enough to survive. Today, however, when the USDA “pays big food companies for their surplus,” Vitiello says, it is “usually for their mistakes, either over-production or very commonly mistakes in package labeling or other small production mishaps.”

Since much of what the food industry produces, markets and sells is highly processed “energy-dense” products, much of the surplus the sector sells to TEFAP is high in calories and low in nutrition. And because food banks generally lack bulk refrigeration and processing kitchens, very little of the food they stock includes fresh produce, meat and dairy. The result is predictable. According to “Nutrition-Focused Food Banking,” a 2015 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “Increased concerns about obesity and chronic diseases, particularly among the poor, have led to questions about the nutritional quality and calorie density of foods on the shelves of food banks.”

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This concern has started changing the way the system operates. According to the NAS report, food banks are increasingly working to distribute healthier food. Feeding America is supporting their efforts by providing nutritional guidance, “with the aim of helping food banks to identify and source healthful foods.”

This proactive approach is a significant departure from the way the system used to work. “Historically, food banks have been all about taking whatever food is offered and finding a way to feed people with it,” says Melanie Cataldi, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Philabundance, the largest hunger–relief organization in and around Philadelphia. “I think a lot of food banks are now moving in the other direction, trying to figure out what the community needs and finding a way to get that.”

For Philabundance, one of the best ways is through contributions from companies using the nearby port of Philadelphia. For many others, “gleaning—gathering food left over after harvesting—is the most productive way to get fresh food inexpensively, “particularly where food banks are connected to big agriculture,” says Vitiello. In some areas, smaller food banks are connecting to local farms and even starting their own farms. They are also accepting donations from deer hunters and, in certain areas, from commercial meat producers, who have started making significant donations. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association, for example, provided 4,000 pounds of beef to the High Plains Food Bank in 2014.

The challenge, of course, is that all of this nutritious food is perishable, which is why a growing number of food banks are developing the capacity to refrigerate and/or preserve it. Given its long-time access to fresh food from the port, Philabundance has had refrigeration for some time, but about six years ago, the growing emphasis on healthy food led the organization to refrigerate an entire warehouse and to raise funds so that it can provide member agencies with refrigeration.

Making Healthy Food Accessible

As important as they are, food banks are a secondary safety net, according to Bill Clark, former executive director of Philabundance and now a visiting practitioner at Wharton’s Social Impact Initiative. Speaking at a University of Pennsylvania conference on urbanization and food security, Clark noted that the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides ten times more assistance to Philadelphia’s poor than Philabundance does.


Some 49 million people in the US lack access to healthy food. Food banks are trying to combat the problem by working to supply healthier choices.


SNAP, WIC (Women and Infant Children) and other programs that provide financial assistance do not feed people directly—they make it more affordable to buy food. But SNAP assistance (still generally known as food stamps) is of little use if a recipient has nowhere to use it. In many inner-city neighborhoods, there is no supermarket or grocery store available. “These communities may have no food access or are served only by fast–food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options,” according to the USDA.

Chester, Pa. was a prime example of such a “food desert.” In 2012, the town’s estimated per capita income was about $15,000 and the last operating supermarket had shut its doors 11 years before. As Clark noted, “food deserts also become ‘charitable deserts,’ so in September 2013, instead of a typical food bank operation, Philabundance opened a small non-profit supermarket in Chester. The hope, according to Clark, was to use charitable and government funding for start-up capital, but to eventually learn enough to make the market self-sustaining and scalable. “Part of what we are trying to do is to learn from this process and template this store so we can duplicate it in other needy food deserts,” said Clark.

In its first year and a half of operation, the store, called Fare and Square, has not met the group’s expectations for memberships or sales, in part because Philabundance didn’t know at first what kinds of food would be most appealing to local residents or how to efficiently operate a working grocery store. But the group is learning fast both from experience and from ongoing market research.

Philabundance has also modified its approach. The goal is no longer to create a totally self-sustaining operation, but to use store revenues to reduce dependence on charitable donations and keep prices as low as possible. It’s early days yet, but the store’s prospects are brightening. A more neighborhood-oriented product mix is lifting sales, improved operating efficiencies are reducing costs, and donors stand ready to help make up any shortfall.

Nonprofit markets like Fare and Square are rare, though Doug Rauch, a former president of Trader Joe’s, recently opened one in Boston. More common in former food deserts are for-profit supermarkets created by public-private partnerships involving various levels of government, philanthropists and private developers. Benjamin Chrisinger, whose PhD dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania studied these markets, said about 100 stores have opened in food deserts and, so far, only a handful have closed.

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Chrisinger’s research reinforces what Philabundance learned about the importance of product selection. “If you don’t have the right price points or the types of food people want to buy, then people may shop there, but they won’t be the low to moderate—income people you were hoping to help,” he says. It’s a myth that people living in food deserts shop exclusively at corner stores. “They go to the supermarket for bigger shopping trips; it’s just more challenging for them to get there,” notes Chrisinger, since they have to drive further, if they have access to a car, or take public transportation. “So when you open a supermarket in a food desert you’re really asking people to change where they’re shopping.” And convenience alone is generally not enough to motivate them.

And even if local people do shop at these stores, there is mounting evidence that the impact on their health is minimal. A recent New York Times article, “Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’ll Buy It,” points out that convenience alone is not enough to change people’s habits. “It seems intuitive that a lack of nearby healthy food can contribute to a poor diet. But merely adding a grocery store to a poor neighborhood, it appears, doesn’t make a very big difference.” The article was based in part on a research paper by Wharton real estate Professor Jessie Handbury titled, “What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases Across the Socioeconomic Spectrum.”

According to Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, “When we put supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, people are buying the same food [that they would have bought at corner stores]. They just get it cheaper.” Why this is so is still being researched, but it seems clear that some combination of financial and social forces is at work. And education is key. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Even in the same store, more educated households purchase more healthful foods.”

Grow Your Own

No one expects either community gardening or urban farming (the latter involves selling at least some of what is grown) to achieve the kind of scale needed to feed the nation’s poor. And it’s naïve to underestimate the challenges confronting such efforts. “Most poor people in the United States, who are of working age, are working,” often at several jobs, so they don’t have time to devote to gardening, says Vitiello. That’s why it’s generally older, retired residents who tend the gardens. And access to suitable land is rare. Know-how is yet another obstacle.

Knowledge@Wharton 2But Vitiello believes that by connecting community gardeners to local stores, food pantries and soup kitchens, small creative food banks and other programs “create relationships of mutual support that aren’t often cultivated by the big warehouse and its large-scale distribution system.” While the benefits are hard to quantify, he admits, these relationships empower people to meet their own food needs. “A common critique of the traditional food-bank system is that it doesn’t build anyone’s capacity, including poor people’s capacity to meet their own food needs,” notes Vitiello, “Whereas, these smaller scale relationships often do.”

Urban farming, access to healthy food, education and direct food assistance—all are needed in the struggle against hunger, observers say. And some programs are working to bring them all together.

One such effort is Common Ground in New Haven, Connecticut, a high school, urban farm and environmental education center rolled into one. According to Common Ground principal Liz Cox, “A key part of our work is about creating an appetite for healthy food among students and within the New Haven community.” That’s why Common Ground students don’t just learn about healthy lifestyles in class, they also share what they learn in school with their families, both informally and through formal school presentations.

And since an appetite for healthier food is of little use without access to such food, says Joel Tolman, the organization’s director of impact and engagement, Common Ground has also started a farm food share program that provides families of students with fresh produce from the school’s own farm and other nearby farms. To help parents make good use of the food, Common Ground offers cooking classes for families in the school’s teaching kitchen.

Students are involved in all these efforts: working on the school’s farm; helping out at farmers markets and with a mobile market that brings fresh produce to key locations throughout the neighborhood; doing market research to find out what kinds of food people want, and even organizing community meetings to address local issues.

In class, students learn about sustainable living and the root causes of hunger, as well as all the regular Common Core subjects, so that graduates can become what Cox calls, “a new generation of leaders.” It’s too soon to know how successful this strategy will be, but with more than 90% of students graduating and 93% to 97% getting into college, there’s reason to hope that Common Ground graduates will be among those leading the way in the future.

Common Ground is by no means the only program taking a multifaceted approach to the problem of hunger in this country. The school itself partners with other key groups in the city, including City Seed, a statewide effort to promote local food for local people, community development and sustainable agriculture. And other creative efforts—including food banks in California, Arizona, Michigan and North Carolina, says Vitiello—are developing their own innovative approaches. Together with existing larger-scale programs, these localized efforts represent a hopeful path forward.

*[This article was originally published by Fair Observer’s partner, Knowledge@Wharton.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: 1000 Words / Monkey Business Images / Oneinchpunch / Shutterstock.com


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