How Do We End Domestic Hunger? A Vision of Justice in the Snare of Charity

Fri, 04/18/2008

Dr. J. Larry Brown
Harvard School of Public Health

Maine Nutrition Council
Maine Dietetic Association
March 20, 2008

Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen:

And thank you to the organizers of this conference for having me here. As perhaps the nation’s oldest domestic hunger scholar, I am never sure whether I am being brought in for some perceived added value or simply to see if I can still stand and speak at the same time. If it’s the latter, I hope to assure you that I can. But I want to do it today not with the usual cheery exhortations of a wrap-up speaker, but with a more somber message, perhaps even an admonition. You see, our job is not going well. Those whose nutritional well-being we care about, the children and adults for whom we advocate, are not getting our best efforts—and certainly not what they deserve. I believe that as the nation prepares to elect a new president, perhaps one who truly cares about social justice and meaningful opportunity, we need to raise the bar substantially. We need to do much, much better. We need to believe… to raise our sights, to think bigger.

Let me put this in context. Recently I received a message from an aide to a Congressman whom I know and respect deeply… a Congressman who has been a dear friend of the national hunger community. I was asked to share any innovative ideas I have about impacting hunger in a particular state. But, the messenger noted, give us ideas that don’t cost any money and don’t require changes in governmental policy. Now, contemplate it: An aide to a progressive political leader from a progressive state that wants to do something about the terrible problem of hunger… without utilizing the tool of government policy, and without expending any funds. It’s sort of like wanting to fight cancer with good intentions and no resources, or to defend the nation’s borders with song books and good will.

However shortsighted this approach may be to addressing hunger, good people like this don’t make such proposals unless public expectations of the possible are unreasonably low. And clearly they are. Nobody really expects that our nation’s leaders will bring an end to hunger. As a consequence, good people do what they feel they can… even when it means taking small steps around the margins. So this is where we are today. The nation’s nutrition community-- particularly those of us who work to end hunger-- are in a pickle. We are organized, we are mature. We can even be poignant. But we are boringly familiar, taken for granted by Congress and the President. We are now an accepted and predictable part of the national landscape. Our issue has been mainstreamed to the point that hunger is no longer considered intolerable. Actually ending hunger is a goal that can be – and usually is – ignored. We have so few teeth that political leaders need to do little about the pervasive hunger problem that now is endemic rather than epidemic in nature. Hunger is acceptable in our nation, and we are in no danger of getting our political leaders to end it. In short, we have lost our way.

In a speech some years ago, I told a parable about a Third World village where so many farmers regularly fell into a river somewhere upstream that villagers organized themselves to jump in the water to save them as they floated by. Over time the village got more proficient at saving lives as its rescue teams became more organized and developed the infrastructure (platforms and ropes) needed for their success in pulling people from the river. The tremendously good feelings the peasants had about their successes, however, were to be dashed by a passer-by who, while watching the salvage spectacle, asked whether anyone had ever walked up-river to learn the source of the problem. Sending a delegation to investigate this idea, the villagers learned that at one point the path to the fields was so close to the river that occasionally victims slid off the bank and into the river. Soon they changed the route of the path so it would not be a peril to the farmers there and, from that time on, no one fell into the river again. The great rescue effort that had been organized, along with its creative support infrastructure, was discontinued because it was no longer needed.

Never having committed this story to writing, I’ve been in forums in recent years when others occasionally retell it. Its authorship is never as important as the fact that it has continued to retain some currency. It makes a point about the alternative “paths” that can be taken to address hunger in America.

Yet the point of the parable has never been strong enough to counter the trends of the times. During the decade since it was first told, charitable giving through food banks across the nation has increased almost 100%. Last year over 2 billion pounds of food were donated – about seven pounds of food for every person living in the United States! Yet even this gargantuan effort would feed each hungry American for only a few days.

During this same decade, Congress created tax breaks for charitable giving by large corporations, so that what they give is no longer just a matter of good will but good business. Congress also passed legislation to inoculate these “good Samaritans” from any adverse health outcomes that might arise from the products they donate for the poor to eat. So strong, in fact, is the charitable impulse that during the Clinton Administration, the President himself, along with the Secretary of Agriculture (the nation’s top hunger fighter), devoted a portion of a Cabinet meeting to the discussion of salvaging food from government cafeterias to give to local food pantries and soup kitchens.

These trends have been supported by a telling shift in rhetoric. Federal officials seldom talk any more about ending hunger as a national goal. Instead, they focus on the more limited goal of “reducing hunger” or of mounting “public-private partnerships.” Such references typically were followed in the Clinton years with the notion that government can only do so much. In other words, do not expect any serious policy initiatives to end hunger. Any pay-off from the “partnership” will have to come from the private sector side, corporate and non-profit. In the Bush years the rhetoric is a bit more honest albeit far more chilling in its import: don’t expect government to end hunger because it is now the responsibility of what the President calls “faith-based charities”. It’s not unlike the Depression era approach of alms houses and soup kitchens: no New Deal safety nets to protect the vulnerable, just let them live at the mercy of hand-outs.

This rhetorical shift on the part of policymakers conveniently removes the onus on them for bringing the U.S. into the pantheon of modern nations that have ended widespread hunger. We no longer aspire to be like other western democracies that protect their people from hunger through adequate public policies. With hunger in the U.S. now more and more a responsibility of private charity, elected and appointed leaders, from the White House to Congress to federal agencies, can wash their hands of a moral scourge unprecedented in other wealthy industrial nations.

Unfortunately this lack of political will and public leadership is abetted by the rhetoric of some private charitable hunger organizations. In past years the nation’s largest hunger charity declared that “we have a job that should not exist,” and that “only governmental policy can end hunger.” That view had the benefit of being honest and direct. But it has now changed its tune. This national hunger charity now holds itself out as an “equal partner” with government in “addressing hunger.” This declaration makes two notable points: Hunger is no longer to be ended but simply addressed (hopefully reduced but nevertheless allowed to continue). And, it says that charity is now a full partner with government and on an on-going basis. The standard of making America a hunger-free nation is out. Charity is now the answer, and hunger charities now dot our communities as ubiquitously as fast food chains.

Today the ethos of charity so permeates out thinking that one frequently hears food bank representatives claim that they do a better job than government anyway. The irony is that this often is true, at least in terms of how responsible they feel for protecting people from hunger. If we could just combine their passion and commitment with the resources that only government has, hunger could be ended. But instead, the diminished role of government, coupled with the excessive rhetoric often emanating from the charitable sector, obscures the fact that ending hunger must come from up-river, not at the feeding sites where the bodies are being rescued.

Those of us in the national hunger community perhaps are more responsible for the current misplaced focus than is the self-serving rhetoric of political leaders. Despite our own high-minded proclamations about the unacceptability of hunger in this land, or our occasional new initiatives to address it, we largely spend our time shifting the deck chairs on a ship that is hardly moving. To become “respectable players” we have lowered our sights and shifted our focus. Yes, in our heart-of-hearts we want to end hunger, but we are not going to push political leaders too hard to do so. Instead, we simply “play” our circumscribed roles. We hold organizational conferences in Washington, D.C. We testify on Capitol Hill. We make friends with Congressional aides, and play cards and go to parties with those “in the know.” By behaving in this way, we have taken our place in the landscape of the status quo.

Even one of the most visible new initiatives manifests ambivalence at best and lack of movement at worst. National Hunger Awareness Day started as a good idea from America’s Second Harvest, a way for the entire national hunger community to push political leaders to end hunger. In reality it has become little more than one organization’s yearly celebration that asks the nation to contribute more and more charity to address hunger.

By no longer believing that we can end hunger, and by lowering our sights simply to that of giving hand-outs to the hungry, the nation’s hunger and nutrition communities have accepted defeat. We have accepted the paradigm of too little, too late. We no longer demand an end to hunger. Instead, we accept that it will continue from year to year and, meanwhile, we will measure it, report on it, feed the hungry… and occasionally make ourselves feel good that we got Congress to pass some tepid legislation to lessen it a little. It’s as if Nelson Mandala had said, OK, just kidding, apartheid can continue in South Africa so long as I can be a bit player. It’s as if Gandhi had said British colonialism could continue in India, so long as periodic reforms were made at the margins.

To be fair, I want to offer myself up for criticism as well. I want to acknowledge my own failings and my own need to do more. In 1985 I first reported on the extent of hunger in America—20 million Americans at the time, through the Harvard-based Physician Task Force on Hunger in America. A decade later our Center summarized the scientific research that shows the impact of hunger—how it impairs cognitive function in children, and how there is really no safe level of hunger. More recently we prepared the first analysis of what the nation pays by letting hunger exist, noting that we are spending over $90 billion each year to pay for a problem that could be ended by about $12 billion more in federal spending. But my efforts, and those of my colleagues, have had precious little impact on politicians or public policy. They seem to have fallen on deaf ears or, at least, very tepid political souls. Moral outrage has been lost. The status quo is the accepted standard. Charity is more important than social justice. Feeding the hungry is more important than ending hunger. My own efforts have proved highly inmadequate.

Together, we can and must do better. We need to shed our conformity and reject charity as the answer to ending hunger. We need to stop acting like timid children. The moral exhortation to “help the needy” is perhaps the first encounter children have with their responsibility to assist those outside the family itself. This laudable act is exemplified in many ways: the church collection plate, the synagogue food pantry, and community events like canned food drives and clothing collections. Fortunately many adults grow beyond this impulse, by adding to the notion of charity the concept of social justice. Charity is what we do when immediate aid is needed to alleviate suffering. But justice is the pursuit of equity and fairness through public policy. It’s what we do when we take responsibility not only for the moment but for the problem itself. In modern society, it is public policy that prevents people from falling in the river in the first place.

So for all of us who care about justice, how can we work to end hunger? How can we do it while recognizing the obvious need for charity in the short-term? Let us recognize the realities we face, whether we are with national and state policy organizations, nutrition and other charitable groups, or simply active citizens:

First and foremost is the need to recognize one truth: Domestic hunger will be ended only through governmental policy. Private charities do not have anything like government’s capacity. In addition, consider what charity does to those in need. Feeding people through charity may get recipients to smile at the moment, but it is inherently demeaning. How would we feel gathering up our own kids to go to a soup kitchen to feed them? Charity makes the giver feel big and the recipient feel small.

Second, hunger is a national responsibility, not the role of state and local government. Other nations have ended hunger as a major threat, but never has it been done on a sustained basis except through national policy. Only government policy, applied for the protection of all, can insure the nutritional security of a nation’s people. Hungry children in Maine, hungry elders in Arizona, and hungry families in Ohio of California all need the same protection—access to an adequate diet that they can consume at their own tables. We can see this point perhaps more clearly through an analogous situation, the need for security against external threats. No political leader would propose that the Defense Department partner with states and local communities by sending its appropriations to the states through “block grants” so that each state can decide how to defend itself. The physical security of our people against external attack is a national issue. So is our nutritional security from the scourge of hunger.

Third, those of us who strive to promote justice through public policy need to understand that precisely because government is not doing its job, charity is needed – not only needed but critical. With the failure of governmental leadership, millions of households in the United States would be in even more dire straits were there no charities. The people who work in food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries stand between needy families and severe hunger. They are our allies, whether or not we always like the occasional short-sighted rhetoric about the long-term importance of charity.

Finally, we must focus our nation and its political leaders on the urgent need to end hunger through omnibus federal legislation. This is the only goal that ultimately matters. No more distracting talk about public-private partnerships. No more self-serving charity rhetoric from Congress that takes us off target. Our elected officials can end hunger in America and they can do it quickly. This will mean holding the collective noses of the new President and Congressional leaders to the grindstone. And this will be much easier to do if charities – yes, charities – help to lead the way. Precisely because they have a job that should not exist, and precisely because they are the mirror image of government failure, the leaders of charitable organizations have an inherent legitimacy in demanding that government assume its responsibility to end hunger. But this will require far more than charity from the charitable sector. It will require putting aside the idea that passing out soup and bread is a viable solution to preventing hunger in the wealthiest democracy in the history of the world.

With these realities in mind, and assuming that we genuinely mean it when we say we want to end hunger in America, let’s ask what type of steps we need to take to achieve this goal. Here are three proposed steps for your consideration:
∑ First, the charitable hunger sector will announce publicly that it intends to go out of business within the next four years. No longer will it be the willing foil that makes governmental irresponsibility possible. Feeding the hungry is not the way to end hunger, by definition. National hunger charities can deliver that message with tremendous moral authority, and prompt Congress to act according to this timetable.
∑ Second, state and national hunger policy organizations will develop omnibus national legislation to end hunger in America. By strengthening the programs that already exist (food stamps, child nutrition programs and elderly feeding), we can bring an end to hunger within a year after enactment. And by indexing the minimum wage to inflation or living wage standards, we can help to eliminate one of the root cause of hunger. In other words, states like Maine and organizations like your own can drive federal policy by expecting leadership from your Congressional delegation.
∑ Third, the national hunger community will no longer be likable. We will be advocates rather than players. We will not accept timid political leadership. Hunger in America can be ended and we will vociferously make this the only policy standard that is acceptable. No more D.C. conferences where Members are invited to speak. No more “being a player” at the expense of being effective. No more card games and cozy Hill friendships. We won’t care about being liked. We will care about being listened to.

In closing, my friends and colleagues, I want to let you know that I had trepidations about giving this speech today. I know I am the closing speaker and this role usually is reserved for an upbeat pep talk about how wonderful things are and how well we all are doing our work. And the reality is that many things are good and those of you in this room are very dedicated to your work and to ending hunger. But our nation is not moving in that direction, and I could not come here and act out the charade that they are. No, for reasons I have addressed, we need to raise the bar by demanding that our elected leaders get to work to end hunger in America… both because it is the right thing to do and because we expect no less. It is said that history can be changed when people dare to act. When history judges our response to the spectacle of hunger in the world’s wealthiest nation:
… Let it be said that we responded not simply with rescue efforts but that we committed to stopping the problem at its source;
... Let it be said that we responded not with concerned complacency, but that we mobilized the moral authority to end it up river at its origin; and
… Let it be said that it all began right here, in Maine.

Thank you all very much.