Tackling the Problem of Hunger in America

by Diana Drake

Kiran Sridhar, 18, graduated from Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, Calif., this spring and a few months later began his freshman year at California’s Stanford University. Sridhar might be just any other college freshman stressing out over finals right about now but for an endeavor that sets him apart: He is on a mission to feed the hungry.

Sridhar is the founder and executive director of Waste No Food, a web and mobile-based marketplace that enables restaurants, grocery stores, convention centers, hotels and cafeterias to donate excess food to charities serving the hungry. Thus far, the platform has donated some 400,000 meals to hungry people.

When Sridhar was 16, he was one of the 25 recipients of The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. In his quest to divert excess food to hungry people and make sure no one in the country goes hungry, Sridhar has said, “Every day in the United States, the amount of food wasted could fill the Rose Bowl stadium. I find it unconscionable that people are going to bed hungry. People who can’t guarantee three meals a day can’t benefit their family, the economy, or society. When so many people can’t guarantee meals, it’s a real societal problem. To see the big challenges some people face just being able to eat keeps me on track. It’s also great to see that a small group of committed people can make a big impact. I now know I have the power to change things.”

What Can Be Done?

Sridhar is by no means the first to tackle the problem of hunger in America, and he won’t be the last. Knowledge@Wharton, Wharton’s online business journal of research and analysis, recently published an article on the struggle to feed America, offering some analysis into the issue of food insecurity and what can be done about it. KWHS offers highlights from that article here.

Hunger in this country 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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’s “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.”

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 hungerrelief 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.

Urban Farming in High School

Another approach to producing food that is healthier is to grow it. 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.

But 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.

Common Ground is not 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.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

The article makes the point that “Hunger in this country is not the result of scarcity.” Explain what this means, based on research within the story, as well as Kiran Sridhar’s motivation.

What is a food bank? How has the food bank model changed since the first one was introduced? What is prompting that evolution?

Have you heard of urban farming? Why is a high-school based program like Common Ground so powerful? What elements does it combine to combat hunger in America?

3 comments on “Tackling the Problem of Hunger in America

  1. “Hunger in this country is not a result of scarcity.” This statement is unbelievably true, hunger in this country is due to individuals being wasteful, not a shortage of food. If restaurants and food stores gave away their unused or “nearly” expired food it would feed millions of hungry people. I admire Kiran Sridhar because at only 18 years old he has created an organization that has already provided 400,000 meals. If there were more students on a mission like Sridhar, the world would be a much better place. The idea of Urban Farming is a great concept. Not only will it strengthen community ties, it will also provide the less fortunate with local fresh produce. Another shocking thing in my opinion is that food companies make 30% more food than consumers buy. This means that food is going to waste at a rapid rate. If all companies were to give away 30% of food that would normally go to waste the hungry in America would be fed and the problem would be solved.

    • It is not just an issue of individuals being wasteful. It is also an issue of economics. Many people can simply not afford to buy food, or the food they can afford is absent any real nutritional value. It is absurd that a processed bag of potato chips can cost less than a healthy alternative like a piece of fruit or a vegetable.

  2. How can we solve hunger in America?

    To me, this question is really asking: Why do one in six Americans go hungry each year?

    This is an intriguing issue; national heroes, such as Kiran and Liz, have certainly helped alleviate these numbers. But a quick Google search shows that it only costs $3000 a year to more than comfortably feed the average American—well above the global average. According to the data in this article, this figure demonstrates that $162 billion in food waste can be easily distributed to feed 49 million hungry Americans, including the costs of dining out and purchasing higher-end groceries.

    So why are projects like Common Ground, which aims to increase food production, operating in the face of organizations like Waste No Food, which strives to consume food production? Why does one of the most economically developed nations in the world, one that relies on an annually robust agriculture industry, one with food surpluses unlike any other country, house 49 million hungry citizens?

    This article shines a spotlight on two interesting stories, but I believe a closer examination reveals the disconnects between these two endeavors that expose two underlying issues:

    1. We have too much food. Disposal and recycling enterprises, such as Waste No Food and Philabundance, have done and will continue to do a great job with handling this issue.
    2. The association between hunger and chronic wealth inequality. I concur with Domenic Vitellio’s sentiment that “hunger is a synonym for poverty.” But I fervently disagree with this article’s fallacious assumption that because poverty is difficult to solve, hunger is therefore also an unavoidable side effect.

    It feels intuitive that if a society has so much disposable food, then in theory, no one should struggle to attain it. There is no competition for edible goods. Even if wealth inequality permeates our society, our unparalleled food waste should indicate that no American should lack the means to purchase enough to eat. Kiran’s endeavors prove that America faces the opposite problem. We are not going to run out of agricultural products anytime soon. Therefore, something in the way we approach food insecurity must be fundamentally broken.

    And it turns out there are massive disparities in the way we handle hunger! After the federal government stopped relying on food stamps forty years ago, food banks began emerging as the primary source of food insecurity alleviation. These unregulated charities proliferated and institutionalized. This article praises Feeding America for coordinating a nationwide network of 200 food banks, but Vitellio’s remark that “small food banks are not allowed” can be very telling of the underlying corruption behind these charities. Anti-hunger activist Andy Fisher dubs this economic phenomenon the “anti-hunger industrial complex.”

    For example, this article mentions TEFAP as a form of major governmental support, one backed by USDA purchases of extra food. However, this article fails to mention that the USDA program responsible for purchasing this surplus, the Supplemental Nutrition Association Program (SNAP) heavily relies on Congressional lobbying to selectively pick and choose which companies to buy up extra food from.

    Of course, this does not mean Feeding America, TEFAP, or the USDA have malicious intentions: The programs still feed millions of hungry Americans and eat up our overproduction. But they also create and exacerbate the very problems they claim to solve.

    For example, Walmart pays its employees extremely low wages, often forcing them to rely on food banks. How can Walmart get away with doing this? Because Walmart annually donates a disproportionate amount of money towards Feeding America’s food banks, which allows them to continue operating and supporting TEFAP, who supports the USDA, who buys up Walmart’s unsold food. And 49 million Americans will continue to starve.

    “Big Pharma” might be a conspiracy theory. But “Big Anti-Hunger” clearly exists, and the subtle contradictions within this article alone indicate the validity of this claim.

    How do we solve this salient issue? For starters, the “charity” food bank approach is unsustainable. Feeding America might ensure that no American will die of starvation, but this is a bandage solution at best, one that also damages a hungry individual’s dignity. No one wants to be fed at a food bank and then economically coerced into going there every week.

    The simplest solution is twofold: Raise employee wages so that workers can capably purchase food themselves, and have the government intervene in the way we approach food insecurity. The status quo proves that when you give the free market almost all the reigns to welfare endeavors, Man’s insatiable appetite for green will find a way to dilute these issues. If the government reestablishes itself through food stamps and indiscriminate buying, then organizations such as Waste No Food and Philibundance can work in tandem to reduce food waste AND solve national hunger for good.

    Perhaps some issues are best solved by non-market actors.

    Perhaps some problems are best solved not by asking HOW we can solve them, but WHY they occur in the first place.

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