Thanksgiving is the time of year when American generosity is clearly visible. We make donations to our local food banks and homeless shelters and volunteer in soup kitchens. But do we really believe that is the solution to hunger?
Mark Winne, former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System, answered the question in yesterday's Washington Post. In a piece titled "Canned Compassion," he describes how what was originally intended as a temporary way of dealing with emergencies has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and how that shows the limits of charity and the importance of justice.
Food banks are a dominant institution in this country, and they assert their power at the local and state levels by commanding the attention of people of good will who want to address hunger. Their ability to attract volunteers and to raise money approaches that of major hospitals and universities. While none of this is inherently wrong, it does distract the public and policymakers from the task of harnessing the political will needed to end hunger in the United States.
The risk is that the multibillion-dollar system of food banking has become such a pervasive force in the anti-hunger world, and so tied to its donors and its volunteers, that it cannot step back and ask if this is the best way to end hunger, food insecurity, and their root cause, poverty.
During my tenure in Hartford, I often wondered what would happen if the collective energy that went into soliciting and distributing food were put into ending hunger and poverty instead. Surely it would have a sizable impact if 3,000 Hartford-area volunteers, led by some of Connecticut's most privileged and respected citizens, showed up one day at the state legislature, demanding enough resources to end hunger and poverty. Multiply those volunteers by three or four - the number of volunteers in the state's other food banks and hundreds of emergency food sites - and you would have enough people to dismantle the Connecticut state capitol brick by brick. Put all the emergency food volunteers and staff and board members from across the country on buses to Washington to tell Congress to mandate a living wage, health care for all, and adequate employment and child-care programs, and you would have a convoy that might stretch from New York City to our nation's capital.
This Thanksgiving, by all means make a donation to a food bank or volunteer in a soup kitchen. And then resolve to become an advocate for policy changes that can alleviate the need for them. Wouldn't it be better if low-income families had a living wage so they could buy their food in a supermarket like the rest of us? As Winne concludes
We know hunger's cause - poverty. We know its solution - end poverty. Let this Thanksgiving remind us of that task.