The American Recipe for a Food Crisis

You might have heard about corporations profiting from sexism, homophobia, physical insecurities, poverty, and even, you! But have you ever wondered how these organisations feed off hunger?

This article attempts to capture the Hunger Industrial Complex (a mechanism by which huge, capitalist organisations systemically perpetuate hunger in order to reap profits, all while maintaining the facade of ‘anti-hunger proponents’) through the story of the US.  

The chronology is simple. People are hungry. They can’t afford food. (Primarily because while the federal minimum wage in the US has been stuck at $7.25, the cost of groceries has gone up by 25% in the past decade.) Anti-hunger groups bank on charities from huge corporations to feed the hungry. These corporations shell out millions for the ‘noble cause’, while ensuring they turn a deaf ear to their employees demanding a wage hike, which would eliminate the need for food banks in the first place. People are hungry, again, the next day!

To understand the complexities better, we need to visit the three main actors in the process: The Donors, The Anti-Hunger Groups and Food Banks, and The Government, and trace their complicity and contributions.

Let's first visit the big corporations vis-a-vis the benefactors or donors to food banks through the lens of Walmart. As the largest employer in the US with nearly 1.6 million workers, Walmart has faced criticism for years over low wages, wage theft, and keeping workers on part-time schedules to shirk off employee security.

You can’t pay your bills, rent and buy groceries on $12 an hour. I don’t think anywhere in the United States, you can do that. No way,” said Mendy Hughes, 46, who has worked as a cashier for Walmart in Arkansas, for 11 years. Anna Turner, who had worked at Walmart in California for more than eight years before being fired for complaining about COVID-19 mismanagement in the workplace, noted that she made less than $15 an hour and was never hired for full-time hours, even though the department was chronically understaffed. “They would always cut our hours so we couldn’t get full-time and health benefits,” said Turner. (Source: The Guardian)  

Moreover, even the Food Stamp Program that the US government has in place to provide food-purchasing assistance to low- and no-income people connects back to Walmart making money! Americans spend about 18% of all food stamp dollars at Walmart, which gives Walmart all the more incentive to force its employees to rely on food stamps. 

So basically, Walmart is encouraging its employees to get food stamps, or go to food banks, because they don’t pay them enough wages in the first place. And surprisingly, the atrocities are legal as the federal minimum wage in the US, as mentioned before, is $7.25!

Unsurprisingly, Walmart’s not the only culprit, there are so many more corporations playing this game. In 2012, Arby’s (one of the biggest fast-food chains of America) raised $2.7 million for the hunger cause, most of which went to Share Our Strength, an organisation aiming to end childhood hunger. Ironically, all this while, Arby’s employees were protesting the fact that they didn’t earn enough to feed their children. 

Now another question arises, why would these companies rather make huge donations than pay their employees a little more?

There are two facets to the answer. 

First, the ‘Maths’ of it. It wouldn’t require much calculation to figure that paying a ‘little’ more to millions of employees, every month, compounds to a much greater price than shelling out a good chunk of bucks every now and then.

Second, the ‘PR’ of it. Donations and charities facilitate corporations to ‘greenwash’ their damaged reputations and boost their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) contribution in ways pay hikes could never accomplish. Charities make these corporations look like ‘hunger fighters’ instead of ‘hunger causers’.

I could still, for a minute, understand corporate complicity. But what about the food banks? What about anti-hunger groups?

Let’s visit these one by one. 

A food bank is a non-profit, charitable organisation that distributes food to those without the resources to evade their hunger, through intermediaries like food pantries. 

In the past few decades, food banks have become an integral and accepted part of America’s hunger response. According to a comprehensive government survey completed in 2002, over 90% of food banks were established in the US after 1981. In the early 1980's, President Reagan’s administration cut back several welfare programmes, which, combined with unemployment and a budding recession, led to a rapid rise in hunger relief activities. The “emergency food system”, supposedly a temporary measure, slowly became a rather permanent industry.

While some believe food banks to be an example of active, caring citizenship, others express concern that the rise of food banks may corrode political support and incentive for welfare.

Next on the list are anti-hunger groups.

These are organisations attempting to alleviate hunger through long-term solutions, anti-hunger programmes, etc. Anti-hunger groups usually tie up with food banks to further their cause.  

Many groups see their role as ensuring that no kid misses a meal, rather than reducing the growing economic inequality (the underlying cause of hunger in the US). Their approach is not hunger elimination, but hunger maintenance.

This brings us to a pertinent question.

Anti-hunger groups are feeding people. But why aren’t they fighting hunger?

One would expect anti-hunger groups to be lobbying for the signage of the living wage bill, or rallying against the violation of employees' rights at the hands of corporations like Walmart and Amazon. But it’s not that simple.

Perhaps their lack of attention is grounded in the fact that many anti-hunger organisations find their roots in these greedy corporations. Look at these numbers: One in every four food bank board members works at a Fortune 1000 company. Walmart staff sit on the boards of about one of every eight food banks.  And they are actively stopping anti-hunger organisations from engaging in public policy activism that threatens their business interest. 

So, anti-hunger groups and food banks are not the bad guys, they just seem to be trapped in an intricate system of exploitative capitalism. 

The last actor is the Government.

Each year, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) spends roughly half a billion dollars in buying produce from farmers, and donates them to food banks. However, if only they spent these resources in increasing social safety net programmes instead, the impact would be truly durable. But that’s an impossible feat to achieve given the lobbying power of the corporate giants in the halls of American Congress. 

To synthesise, there’s nothing the food banks can do, and there’s nothing the government or corporations want to do. So what’s the bottom line?

Bottom Line

The anti-hunger movement needs to focus on anti-hunger efforts, not on charity but on the root causes of food insecurity, improving public health, and reducing income inequality. It needs anti-hunger groups to serve a broader agenda than just temporarily fading out hunger for the day, through federal programmes and charitable organisations. It needs to exact a much higher price from corporations in the form of greater social responsibility. It needs to urge the government to bring systemic changes, especially in the form of increased wages and benefits, policy reforms, etc. But most importantly, we need to familiarise ourselves with these systemic disadvantages and blockages, identify them, and uproot them, because, at the end of the day, no one deserves to be hungry.


Eeshita Verma

A poetic and punny person, Eeshita is currently pursuing her Bachelor's in commerce from SRCC. When free, she can be found blank staring or playing her ukulele.

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