Author, Anti-Hunger Advocate Andy Fisher Sheds Light on Food Insecurity and its Ties to our Industrial Food System, Politics

Why is the problem of chronic hunger and food insecurity getting worse in the world’s top superpower? Forty-three million people receive SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and 13 percent of the U.S. population fit USDA’s definition of “food insecure.” Despite an army of well-intentioned volunteers working with 60,000 emergency food sites supplied by more than 200 food banks, the anti-hunger sector has not been able to stem the tide of hunger. In fact, as Andy Fisher points out in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, little that they do alleviates the root causes of the problem.
Fisher is best known for his roles developing the concept of community food security and building the food movement. In 1994 he co-founded the Community Food Security Coalition, a national alliance of groups focused on improving food access and strengthening local food systems. He served as the organization’s executive director for 17 years, until 2011. CFSC brought together people from disparate parts of the food system, such as sustainable agriculture, anti-hunger, community gardening and farmers’ markets, which had not been in the same room before, and gave them opportunities to collaborate as partners and create projects that benefit multiple interests. Fisher was instrumental in gaining passage of federal legislation such as Community Food Projects and the Farm to School grant program. He has worked on a wide variety of food system projects and topics, including food policy councils, healthy corner stores, coalition building and farm to cafeteria. Since leaving CFSC, he has taught at various universities in Oregon, most recently as adjunct faculty member of the public health department at Portland State University, and served as interim executive director at Portland Fruit Tree Project.
Fisher became interested in domestic food issues as a grad student in Urban Planning and Latin American Studies at UCLA. When Los Angeles exploded following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King, he and a handful of fellow grad students felt an urgency to deal with what was going on in their own backyard. “The food system was not working for people in South Central Los Angeles. People were burning grocery stores, and there weren’t many supermarkets there,” he said. Fisher went on to conduct a yearlong inquiry into the problems of food access, health and hunger in one South Central neighborhood and explore possible solutions. The report gained attention as one of the first community food assessments in the country.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. Food pantries and soup kitchens were originally intended as sources of food for emergencies, but millions of Americans regularly depend on them. Food pantries have popped up in so many neighborhoods, in rural areas and even at colleges. What went wrong in our country to make this the new normal?

ANDY FISHER: That’s a wonderful question. The first food bank — a place that aggregated food from retailers and processors in a warehouse — opened in Phoenix in the 1960s. Into the 1970s only a handful of food banks existed across the country. A nascent alliance called Second Harvest coordinated those efforts. Come 1981, after Reagan took office, the country went into a deep recession. A lot of manufacturing jobs went south or to Japan. The steel industry is a prime example of an industry where many jobs left the country. Many people became unemployed. During that period labor unions, churches and other groups started creating food pantries as a way to feed people on an emergency basis. Nobody expected it to last forever. But once the ball got rolling, food corporations realized it was a morally preferable way to dispose of their surplus food. For volunteers, it was a wonderful way to feel good. People continued to need the food. The emergency food system became very convenient for the federal government because it demonstrated that the private sector was addressing this issue and suggested that we didn’t need ‘big government’ to do it. Over time it became institutionalized. I started working on these issues in the early- to mid-1990s. For the first 10 years I was involved, food bankers would frequently claim that they were trying to put themselves out of business. Around a decade ago, I stopped hearing that on a regular basis. Part of what accelerated the process of making the emergency food system a permanent part of the landscape was America’s Second Harvest, the food banking trade association. Around 2006, Second Harvest hired Vicki Escarra, formerly Delta’s chief marketing officer, as its CEO. She led a rebranding of the organization as Feeding America and brought in high-level advertising PR folks. They ramped up their fundraising from corporate America and starting engaging in cause marketing. The relationships between the food banks and corporations really took off.

ACRES U.S.A. You call fighting hunger a national pastime. That sounds like something that Americans could be proud of. What makes you critical of the way we conduct this activity?

FISHER: I think it’s great that Americans engage and care as deeply about hunger as they do. The issue comes in when the solutions that people want to work on are superficial and only treat the symptom of the problem, rather than the root causes. Hunger has also been trivialized and sanitized. Anti-hunger efforts are sometimes presented as a competition or a game. Universities compete over who can raise more food. Even my son’s elementary school had a competition over who could collect the most food, and the winner got a pizza party.

ACRES U.S.A. Why are people food-insecure?

FISHER: As a nation we produce more than enough calories to feed everybody. There’s plenty of food in the supermarket. The problem is people not having the purchasing power or the access to that food. Poverty is generally the cause of food insecurity. Food insecurity is also related to the high cost of living, especially in major metropolitan areas and urban areas such as Portland, Oregon, where I live. If people are spending more than a third of their income on rent, which is the recommended percentage, they will have less money available for food. And some people are spending 50 or even 70 percent of their income on rent. Low wages and the precariousness of work drive poverty. Healthcare is another really important piece of the puzzle. Before the Affordable Care Act, medical bills were the number one cause of personal bankruptcy, and in many cases they’re still a big problem. Upstream from that, you get into issues around racism and sexism. Ultimately you get into political power. It’s those who lack political power who tend to be food insecure. The political elites are not the ones who are hungry!

ACRES U.S.A. How many people suffer from food insecurity in the United States?

FISHER: About 12.6 percent of the nation’s population is considered food-insecure in 2015. Slightly over 4 percent are considered to have very low food security, which is more extreme. Amartya Sen is a Nobel prize-winning economist who has studied famine in the international context. He found that there has never been a famine in any country with a functioning democracy. Again, there’s a correlation between political power and hunger.

ACRES U.S.A. If you’re classified as being food-insecure, could you get enough calories, but not enough nutrients?

FISHER: Yes. The USDA developed a 12-question module to define food insecurity. Did you give up food so that your children could eat? Did you change your food choices or skip a meal because you ran out of money? Are you anxious about running out of money for food? The questions are experiential and behavioral. A lot of it comes down to eating ramen or some other low-cost food at the end of the month, or skipping a meal here and there. Researchers found a hunger obesity paradox. In some populations people who are food-insecure have a higher prevalence of obesity. They’re eating high caloric foods that aren’t very nutritious and also going through cycles of binging at the beginning of a month, when they get a new allotment of food stamps or their check comes in, and then deprivation when their money runs out.

ACRES U.S.A. Has the term “food insecurity” supplanted the word hunger?

FISHER: It has, at least in the USDA lexicon. In 2006 or so, the agency changed its measurement from hunger to food insecurity to be more precise. Obviously, hunger is still used in the vernacular. A lot of non-profits will talk about people being at risk of hunger or being food-insecure. Hunger is such an emotively powerful word, but it’s vague and hard to measure.

ACRES U.S.A. The sheer magnitude of food waste in this country has been garnering lots of attention recently. You pointed out that the charitable food system was invented as a morally preferable alternative to throwing away perfectly good food. What are the implications of this arrangement for the types of food being distributed?

FISHER: I see food banking as being at the intersection of waste and want. On some levels, the charitable food system is an appendage of industrial agriculture and the industrial food system. Given the existence of waste in the system, there will be an emergency food system because Americans find it anathema to throw out food. Julia Tedesco, the executive director of Foodlink, the food bank in Rochester, New York, told me that even if Foodlink closed down tomorrow, another organization would pop up in its place. Recently for a year and a half I was interim executive director of an urban gleaning organization called Portland Food Tree Project. People who don’t want to pick their apples or plums would call us and we would mobilize volunteers. The organization harvested about 60,000 pounds of fruit last year. All our media coverage focused on avoiding waste. I tried to change the emphasis to promoting health, but avoiding waste kept coming up among staff, board and volunteers. That isn’t our primary goal, but it’s so ingrained that it’s been really hard to overcome. The food industry is not wasting as much food as it used to due to greater sophistication at the retail level and in processing. Food corporations have implemented just-in-time delivery and they’re better at supply management and monitoring their stocks. While food banks are still getting a lot of food from supermarkets and processors, the volume has declined, and they now have to buy food. That’s good in that they can control what they get. They’re not buying Oreos; they’re buying things like produce, protein and whole grain products. But on the negative side they’re supporting a whole secondary system of food, which legitimizes the charitable food system even further. The quality of the food that’s wasted is often poor. It may be leftovers — day-old bread or milk that’s nearing its expiration date, but is still perfectly good, or wilted lettuce. Maybe it’s stuff with a weird label, or the product of a food manufacturer’s experiment or that was donated because they produced too much of it. Some of it is fine, some is just odd, and some is of deteriorating quality. But the manufacturers, and retailers, in particular, want food banks to take it all. And food banks will say that they feel obligated to take the entire load and then figure out what to do with the unhealthy stuff, like birthday cakes, cupcakes and soda.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s certainly what happens with the food pantry locally. A friend of mine makes a weekly supermarket run. They get all the old bread and cakes and produce, some that are good and some in poor condition. The food pantry sends a lot of it to a pig farmer.

FISHER: Exactly. There’s a perception and a reality that beggars can’t be choosers so they’re forced to take everything. Some food banks, like the Food Bank of Central New York and the one in Santa Cruz, California, have turned the tables on their donors by refusing to take soda. A bunch of others are moving in that direction. And some will take soda and dump it out and then return the bottles for deposit. There are different strategies. But, by and large, food banks have not figured out how to say no to Pepsi when they want to donate orange juice and soda. In April I was in Toronto to do a couple of talks. People kept quoting a phrase about the charitable food system, “Garbage food for garbage people.” That’s how activists there think food banks are treating people. There’s something really powerful and true about that — these people don’t matter, so we can give them whatever. People deserve high-quality food. People who are poor should be getting the best stuff because they’re more vulnerable to diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Why foster those diseases by giving them substandard foods? That’s inherently undignified.

ACRES U.S.A. In your book you cite a report by Bread for the World that calculated the United States spends an additional $160 billion for health care due to food insecurity. What kinds of health problems come from an inadequate diet?

FISHER: We need to change our framework and focus more on diseases of over-nutrition and inappropriate nutrition, rather than under-nutrition. You’re probably not going to find many cases of rickets or pellagra in America, but there’s a correlation between eating highly processed, refined foods and diabetes, obesity and heart disease. People get metabolic syndrome, have heart attacks and develop certain types of cancers. Under-nutrition issues are probably most prevalent among children. Children’s Health Watch has done some excellent research in Boston and Philadelphia looking at cognitive development problems. Kids are incredibly sensitive to these issues, especially in the first 1,000 days of life. And you may have seen stories about kids as young as 10 who died in a car crash showing the beginnings of arteriosclerosis.

ACRES U.S.A. You went undercover as a food pantry recipient. What did you experience?

FISHER: I started out as a volunteer at my local food pantry, but then I decided I needed to experience a food pantry as a recipient. I asked my friends at Oregon Food Bank to suggest an average food pantry in my city. I went to one in a North Portland church. After the doors opened, they sat us down in a big room. There were 60 to 80 people in the room. They used a lottery to determine our position in line. I drew a fairly low number, so I didn’t have to wait that long, but I knew if I got a big number, there would be less food left for me. They did my intake and had me sign a form that my income was under 185 percent of poverty, which it isn’t. I guess I defrauded the government, but I later wrote a check to the church to make up for the food I took. I was ushered into the basement. It was a shopping pantry, like the one I volunteered at. The shelves were lined with food. I was told I could take certain things. A Latino woman told me what I could take. She was nice enough, but a little impatient. I grabbed this and that as fast as I could, just to get out of the way. We were supposed to get three days’ worth of food. At check out, I used paper bags that I had brought from home, but that got me yelled at by the checkout people. They told me to bring cloth bags next time because paper bags would break. The tacit message was that there would be a next time. I had picked some decent stuff, but also a lot of weird stuff, like some nasty canned potatoes and carrots and mediocre off-brand products. The thing that really stood out was pretty awful non-branded frozen fish patties that were oddly packaged. I tried to live off what I got for a while. It lasted me close to 10 days. Overall I felt put in my place and resentful. I’m middle class. If I had been poor and really needed the food, maybe I would have felt more grateful, but it wasn’t an empowering experience by any stretch of the imagination.

ACRES U.S.A. Acres U.S.A. readers will be familiar with efforts by major agricultural organizations to stymie debate and discredit negative findings and other criticisms of agrichemicals and genetic engineering. How do anti-hunger organizations seek to control the discourse about anti-hunger practices and programs?

FISHER: Thanks for asking that. I’ll point to two examples. In 2013, a freelance journalist in Boston named Steve Holt was writing for a website called It’s linked to Participant Media, which put out the documentary A Place at the Table. He called me, and we had a long conversation about food banks. He decided to write a two-part article. The first part focused on the research I was doing for my book, and the second part would address food quality at food banks. I talked to him about things like the composition of food bank boards, where a quarter of board members work for Fortune 1000 companies, and policy issues. ran that first article in the summer of 2013, but the second article never appeared. When I asked him what happened, he told me they censored it. Feeding America got to his editor’s boss, and said, “We admit everything in the first article was accurate, but we don’t like it. We want to continue to be able to partner with you on other projects. We won’t if you run this article.” Example number two occurred in 2012, during the heat of the Farm Bill. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health was finding that the quality of food bank participants’ diets wasn’t very good. They were also finding that food stamp participants didn’t want soda to be in the food stamp program and were supportive of changes. But from the perspective of the Food Research and Action Center, that research threatened the renewal of food stamp program. FRAC leaders flew to Boston to meet with Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a few other professors, and ask them to shut down their research. Harvard declined, and one of the Harvard professors called out FRAC for receiving soda industry money. Eventually, FRAC’s executive director, Jim Weill, stood up, bashed his hand on the table and stormed out. They haven’t talked to each other since. I think of this conflict as the clash of the titans. And this isn’t the only time that FRAC has tried to quash dialog and dissent over the issue of soda in SNAP.

ACRES U.S.A. Should recipients be allowed to buy soda, candy and other junk food with their SNAP benefits? Lay out the arguments in this controversy and which sides the various interest groups take.

FISHER: The public health arguments are that soda is not food and it’s toxic and damaging to people’s health. The more research is done on soda, the more we find out how harmful it is. It has no nutritional value, but it’s worse than empty calories. Soda not only drives obesity; it’s also a major factor in diabetes. Numerous studies in over 100 countries around the world have shown that increased soda consumption correlates directly with an increase in diabetes. The countries with the highest consumption have the highest rates of diabetes. We are spending billions of dollars on health care. A prevention program through the Affordable Care Act is pumping out over a billion dollars to improve diet, which is considered basic to people’s health. Yet in 2011 SNAP recipients spent around $6.5 billion a year on sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, Gatorade and energy drinks. SNAP is a nutrition program. Why is the government allowing this to happen? It’s not in anybody’s best interest except the soda companies. The anti-hunger groups’ argument is more multi-faceted. They argue that you can restrict soda in SNAP, but that won’t stop people from drinking it. People will buy it with their own money. They say restricting soda would be too hard to manage programmatically and would require complicated technologies. There are tens of thousands of food items. How do we decide what’s allowed and what isn’t? A lot of SNAP is spent at mom-and-pop grocery stores. Stores may opt out of the program if it becomes more complicated. They say it just won’t work. Anti-hunger groups also argue that prohibiting soda purchases would be stigmatizing. In this country we have a horrible history of treating poor people differently — as “less than.” This is just another instance wanting to control poor people. Telling people they can’t make good nutrition choices infantilizes them and will cause them to opt out of SNAP.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s your response to the anti-hunger groups’ arguments?

FISHER: I agree with the anti-hunger groups that public health folks can be a little patronizing and they often believe that their concerns are more important than anyone else’s. But I don’t agree with their other arguments. Some people in the anti-hunger movement also make a harm reduction argument. Poor people’s lives are tough. They don’t get to take a vacation. Let them enjoy a little bit of daily pleasure by buying a Coke. Food does not just provide nutrition. It has social and pleasure values. That I agree with. The alliances on this issue are all screwed up. FRAC has developed a coalition between anti-hunger groups and the soda industry to preserve freedom of choice. Other food manufacturers are afraid that if the SNAP program starts designating good food and bad food, it will be a slippery slope and they will have foods excluded. SNAP is a $66 billion a year program and some companies make a huge amount of money off of it. A few years back Kraft said one-sixth of its revenues come from SNAP. On the other side, the public health community is taking the same position as the libertarians and right-wing folks who want to quash SNAP. They’re seeing this as an opportunity to demonize and control poor people because they don’t know how to make good decisions. They’re either buying sushi and crab legs or chips and soda. What is the appropriately holy mixture for SNAP recipients to be buying? Brown rice and milk?

ACRES U.S.A. How should we resolve this controversy?

FISHER: I believe that we need to use behavioral economics. California Food Policy Advocates was trying to set up a pilot program in one county there. People would have a choice between regular SNAP, where they could buy anything, or SNAP B, where they would commit not to buy any liquids except fluid milk in exchange for incentives for buying fruits and vegetables. The public health literature has shown that the most effective way to address this problem is by incentivizing and excluding at the same time. The status quo isn’t benefitting anybody. People may have freedom of choice, but within an illness-producing food system. To me, the question is whether you change the offerings. Do you correct or improve an unhealthy food system, or take a laissez faire approach and expect that people will make the right choice on their own? I support a SNAP program that both allows consumers some choice but also disincentivizes soda consumption. I also think that we’re asking the wrong question. In the United States we spend roughly $600 billion a year on groceries. SNAP represents about 10 percent of our grocery purchases as a nation. That’s a huge amount of money. Isn’t there a way that this money could be used to leverage change in a food system to support goals that all of us in the food movement have been working for — things like sustainability, ecological health, reducing climate change impacts, treating workers well and better health? Wal-Mart executives estimate that their corporation redeems 18 percent of all SNAP benefits. What would it take to link at least some portion of SNAP with domestic agricultural policy in order to improve the food system? It’s very disappointing that nobody’s asking that question.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any ideas about how to do that?

FISHER: The way the food system is structured, nutrient-dense foods are more expensive than calorie-dense foods. Adam Drewnowski, a professor at University of Washington, has documented that fruits and vegetables tend to be more expensive per calorie. If you have a limited budget, you’re going to spend your money on calorie-dense foods. Why are foods priced this way? While some people point to commodity subsidies, others have shown that’s not necessarily the case. Is the issue concentration in the food system? Should we be subsidizing specialty crops? Is there a way to use incentives through SNAP as the demand side of the equation? I don’t know, but those would be interesting approaches to the problem. At the same time could we foster greater local and regional supply through food hubs and value-added processing and rebuilding ‘Ag in the middle’ (mid-sized farms)? A growing body of research shows that locally owned, small- to medium-size businesses are more effective at poverty reduction and job creation than large corporations. The Economic Research Service recently released a study that dances around this issue, and Harvard and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta have done studies.

ACRES U.S.A. Going back to the topic of food stamps, do other countries have similar programs?

FISHER: I’ve never seen anyone point to a similar program in another country. I would instead draw parallels to international food aid. When most countries provide famine relief or food aid internationally, they contribute money to purchase food in that country or neighboring countries in order to stimulate the local economy and local agricultural suppliers. But the United States sends actual food grown in our country in order to support American agriculture. By law, only our ships can transport this food so as to support the U.S. shipping industry. Politically, this makes sense and it supports the narrative that the United States is feeding the world. It also gets very expensive, which makes it less effective. It’s also not very timely. And when we dump a lot of grain into a local economy, it harms the country’s existing producers country and aggravates poor economic conditions. That framework is called “tied aid” because it’s tied to U.S. domestic production. There’s been growing interest in untying that aid in favor of local and regional procurement. With some success USAID has done pilots to move towards the European or Canadian model. The food stamp program is essentially tied aid, though nobody talks about it this way. That is, SNAP is a voucher for food. As far as I know, the United States is the only country that does that. In other countries, people receive cash payments through welfare or social assistance programs or a basic income.

ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the origins and the evolution of the food stamp program?

FISHER: The food stamp program was started as an agricultural support program in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The Roosevelt administration provided subsidies to farmers who were overproducing and used price supports to allow the poor to buy that food at a reduced price. It initially gave them access to very healthy food including lots of fruits and vegetables. Then during World War II, there wasn’t any excess production to counteract. The food stamp program slowed down into the 1950s with Eisenhower, who wasn’t that supportive of it. Then in the 1960s, the first thing that Kennedy did when he took office was to expand the food stamp program.

ACRES U.S.A. Historically, did people have to buy the food stamps?

FISHER: Yes. You got $1.50 of food stamps for every dollar you put in, which was a problem for people who didn’t have the cash to buy the food stamps. When SNAP was expanded again in the 1970s, the cash requirement was eliminated. The food stamp program is downstream of the food system. As the food system changed, the types of products that people were buying also changed. Hot Pockets didn’t exist in 1930! Into the 1960s, USDA would deliver very bad quality commodity food in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and other impoverished areas. Anti-poverty advocates wanted to normalize food stamps so the poor could buy foods in the supermarket like everyone else, thus avoiding the stigma attached with commodity distribution. Interestingly, in 1964 and 1977 there were two different efforts by members of Congress to ban frozen foods and soda from the food stamp program, though they didn’t succeed. That shows there was that consciousness back then. In the 1996 Farm Bill, a decision was made to shift food stamps onto a debit card. Whipping out that booklet of food stamps was stigmatizing to people, and food stamps themselves were conducive to fraud and abuse. The debit card was intended to reduce food stamp reselling, and it certainly has reduced the ability to market food stamps.

ACRES U.S.A. It seems, then, that the food corporations that benefit from the SNAP program would be major boosters of the program.

FISHER: They absolutely are. They’re among the biggest lobbyists for the program.

ACRES U.S.A. We don’t hear about that when cuts are threatened.

FISHER: The politics of this program are going in a couple different directions. For a long time the food stamp program, or SNAP, has been authorized through the Farm Bill. That allows logrolling between nutrition programs and the rural farm programs. Members of the agriculture committees tend to come from rural parts of the Midwest and the South. But those rural votes aren’t enough to get the Farm Bill through the full House and the Senate so they depend upon urban votes. Under the deal they’ve cut, the Ag committees get their rural farm programs and on the floor of the full House and Senate get the nutrition programs. That wins the urban vote. That kind of rural/urban logrolling or hand washing has existed for a long time, but it started to break down in the last Farm Bill mainly because of the Tea Party’s opposition. To secure SNAP funding, anti-hunger advocates have been very much in coalition with the food industry. It used to be the cattlemen’s association, the corn growers and the soy growers that went to the mat for food stamps. They probably do still, but Senate records show that the food processors and retailers are now spending much more money on lobbying for the SNAP program because they profit from it. When SNAP was cut in the last Farm Bill, the business press reported that it hurt retailers like dollar stores. The $66 billion in SNAP now, including program administration, is down from $70 billion when I wrote the book. There are 15 federal nutrition programs in all, such as WIC, school lunch programs and commodities purchases.

ACRES U.S.A. When the federal government does the actual purchasing, as opposed to SNAP recipients buying their own food, its goal is to get the greatest quantity of food the most efficiently for the fewest dollars — not to get the best food. What kinds of values get lost in the cheap food model? What are the negative of using taxpayer money that way?

FISHER: A scholar in the U.K. named Kevin Morgan writes about these issues in the European context. He talks about “the power of the public plate” — the role of public procurement — especially through school meals, to transform the food system. He distinguishes between getting values for your money from just getting value. That’s a really good framework. Probably the easiest way to talk about this is to give examples.

ACRES U.S.A. I love the examples in the book.

FISHER: Tyson, the largest poultry producer in the country, pioneered a model of contract farming that externalizes the risks and the costs onto its contract farmers. It is very fickle with them and drives a lot of them out of business and into bankruptcy through its demands. Those farmers are essentially indentured servants, though Tyson is certainly not the only bad actor in the poultry industry. Chris Leonard’s book The Meat Racket exposes Tyson’s practices. He found that per capita income lags behind the state average in two-thirds of the counties in which Tyson operates. Tyson is dragging down the local economies of those counties! It’s not an economic boon in any shape or form. And its plants have lot of OSHA violations. Tyson’s a predatory company, yet it has the single largest USDA contract for commodity foods. Every year USDA buys $2 billion worth of food every year for the school lunch program, food banks and other programs. In 2014 Tyson sold over $100 million of chicken to USDA. Tyson also sells chicken directly to school districts and processes the chicken that it sells to USDA. School districts contract with Tyson to turn those whole, raw chickens into chicken nuggets, chicken patties or chicken tenders.

ACRES U.S.A. Or other unhealthy, highly processed foods.

FISHER: Exactly. Tyson has a very large food service budget — about $12 billion. They receive a lot of money from the public sector — not just schools, but colleges and hospitals and the like — for making these processed chicken products. A group called the Center for Good Food Purchasing started out of the LA Food Policy Council. The Center is now based in Oakland. It has worked with the city of Los Angeles, the LA Unified School District and a number of other school districts around the country to establish a set of standards. It’s like the LEED standards for buildings, with bronze, silver and gold levels. Public sector food services have to meet criteria within five different categories, such as labor, nutrition and sustainability. Tyson’s is on their list, to put it gently.

ACRES U.S.A. It doesn’t meet these criteria.

FISHER: Yeah. The Center did great organizing work to get the LA Unified School District, which served 138 million meals in the 2015-2016 school year, not to renew its contract with Tyson chicken in favor of another chicken producer whose processing plants are unionized. I think that’s impressive. School Food Focus is another approach. Toni Liquori, who has done a lot of work in the New York City school district, runs it. The group works with the industry. With a few charitable trusts, they have created a certified responsible antibiotic usage (CRAU) label for poultry products that reduces antibiotic usage. That label and process is taking hold in the industry, beyond just those school districts. They’re hoping that USDA, with its $2 billion of commodity purchases, will also start to use that label. Those two very different approaches are both interesting and valid, and they’re both changing the food system in very positive ways.

ACRES U.S.A. What are some of the constraints that keep many or most school district food service directors from providing more nutritional food?

FISHER: The limitations tend to be money, money and money. The USDA’s reimbursement for school meals has barely changed in decades. USDA provides $2.93 to school districts for each free and reduced lunch plus a quarter in commodities. It’s not a lot of money. They got an extra $0.06 per meal in the last Child Nutrition Act. About half of that money goes into food purchases. The other half goes into labor and equipment, electricity and everything else. School food services generally have to break even because school systems don’t have extra money to put into their food budget. They also have huge administrative and paperwork costs. How much healthy food, if any, they serve is not only limited by their budgets, but also by labor and equipment. Due to the low-cost, low-reimbursement model, many school systems have centralized their cooking facilities. They ship out meals to individual schools in a heat-and-serve model. You don’t have to pay somebody who heats and serves as much as a skilled chef, and labor is a huge cost, especially in places like San Francisco and New York. Portland public schools buy over 40 percent of its food locally, but my kids will tell you that sometimes what’s served is pretty darn scary. You can turn the mac and cheese upside down, and it doesn’t fall. Another limitation is that some food service directors presume that kids will only eat unhealthy stuff, though time and time again, that’s been shown not to be true. There are lots of great examples to the contrary, like farm-to-school initiatives, salad bars, and the Edible Schoolyard.

ACRES U.S.A. What can we learn from places like Malmo, Sweden, and the Soil Association’s Food for Life in the U.K.?

FISHER: In the Swedish example, they were trying to use 100 percent organic within their schools to reduce the climate change impacts of their food. They found the easiest way to do was to reduce the amount of meat they serve. Rather than doing something like Meatless Mondays, they decided to serve good food, which sometimes is vegetarian. They don’t advertise it as meatless because that would make it seem like a sacrifice. That’s an interesting framework for this country, where Meatless Mondays meet a lot of resistance. The Food for Life program in the U.K. has taken the work that Center for Good Food Purchasing is doing and gotten government support for it. They are quite comprehensive and thoughtful in their approach, and they’ve scaled up enough to make a real difference.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you imagine an organic farming organization here being able to do anything like that in the United States?

FISHER: No. From what I understand, the Soil Association has had internal battles about it. A lot of people didn’t want to promote it because it wasn’t entirely organic, but the people behind it realized that you have to work with people where they’re at, and you can’t demand schools go all organic because of the supply and cost factors.

ACRES U.S.A. You wrote about the poor not having a seat at the table in the emergency food and anti-hunger groups. Why is it thought to be okay not to give low-income people a seat at the table when they’re the recipients?

FISHER: First of all, a quick history. Let’s start with the ’60s and the war on poverty. Community action agencies were established to address hunger and the needs of low-income communities. Fifty years later a lot of them are doing things like heating assistance, and some are involved with food banking. But in the original model for these groups, they were supposed to have a board that was a third business people, a third poor people, and a third other people from the community. By including people who are affected as well as people with resources, the idea was that you would get a lot of wisdom in the room. That model continued into the ’80s when under the Reagan administration, funding for the war on poverty started to be cut and community action agencies became more stodgy. Thirty to 40 years ago, there was more community organizing and more of a social change movement than there is today. ACORN is a good example of a poor people’s organization. Since then, the non-profit world has become much more professionalized and specialized. We each have our own niches, our organizational and programmatic silos. You’re either a hunger organization or a housing organization or an environmental organization — not a social change organization. Funding is one of the drivers of this trend. Funders have tried to move toward measurable results and outcome-based funding. They want you to prove that you are having an impact in your community. That makes it very hard to do organizing because that takes a long time and the results are not as easy to measure as a deliverable like how many widgets you produced or how many people in your job-training program got a job. Those are broader issues within the non-profit world. Food banks have become mainstream and respectable. Their budgets are now oftentimes north of $10 million in cash and tens of millions of dollars in product. They naturally gravitate toward the food industry to find board members because those people have the expertise and the connections to help them access food and provide technical assistance on the logistics of moving or warehousing that food. And there’s a natural affinity because they’re the funders. In many cases, as organizations get larger, their type of boards changes, too. Instead of being working boards, they become fundraising boards. One food bank in New York City demands that each of its board members raises $25,000 a year. Either they give that sum, raise it or get off the board. I don’t know if other food banks have that specific requirement, but that type of approach is far from atypical. Bringing poor people into such a board is not easy or culturally convenient. So the question becomes why aren’t recipients or other poor people involved in other fashions, if not on boards or advisory panels. I think it relates back to the professionalization of the movement. Food banks are social service organizations, not social change organizations. Maybe the wisdom of the poor would help them better design their programs, but they don’t feel that they need it to drive their programming. I am not a community organizer, but I’ve learned through osmosis the importance of listening if you’re going to organize people. You need to hear from them about their priorities, and work with them on those, rather than impose your own agenda. That probably occurs too infrequently in the anti-hunger community. The typical scenario is to come in and say, “We need your help to increase the SNAP budget.” People might say, “I’m on SNAP but I don’t want to be on it in six months. I don’t identify with it and I’m not going put my energy into this. I care about getting a better job, or improving the quality of schools, or health care, or reducing crime in my neighborhood. SNAP is number 12 on my list.”

ACRES U.S.A. Throughout your book, you talk about how food banks and the anti-hunger movement do not engage with economic justice issues, like raising the minimum wage, even though that would reduce the need. Help us understand their reluctance to address root causes.

FISHER: Jan Poppendieck talks about the advocate’s dilemma. If you’re an anti-hunger advocate, you’ve got a big job and a limited amount of time and energy. You know nutrition programs best and you have the connections, expertise and public backing to try to improve the quality and scope of nutrition programs. That seems like the most rational use of your limited time. Independent hunger advocates that are not distributing food, like the Hunger Action Network of New York State, tend to be very small and scrappy with budgets under $500,000 or $1 million. They’re much more likely to engage on minimum wage and income support issues than food banks. They’re probably not getting money from corporate donors so they’re less likely to have those conflicts of interest. But food banks are by far the largest game in town. A lot of them aren’t advocating at all. Relatively few — though an increasing number — have policy advocacy departments. Mostly, food banks work on things like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides food banks with funds for food. They also may work on SNAP issues and some are involved with school lunches and WIC. But very few deal with the minimum wage, immigration, health care or housing. These issues are outside of what I call the nutrition safety zone, where food banks can advocate without running afoul of their boards or their donors. Boards tend to be heavily corporate and may not support the organization moving into more of a progressive political space. Or it may contradict their economic interest. For example, companies like Wal-Mart, Safeway and Kroger are likely to oppose food banks supporting an increase in the minimum wage because it would cut into their profits. Food banks’ individual donor base is both Republican and Democrat, both conservative and liberal. Maybe the conservatives have a little bit more money than the liberals do and are more generous, food banks don’t want to negatively impact their fundraising capacity by working on wage issues. Or they just don’t feel they have the capacity or the expertise to do so. On the flip side many of them are not even joining with their local progressive economic alliance to support a minimum wage increase. The San Francisco Food Bank wouldn’t publically support minimum wage increase, but it did join an alliance. In other places, like in South Dakota, they would not support it. By and large, these upstream policy issues are seen as divisive.

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve been painting a picture of large institutions that have developed a lot of infrastructure and are in the business of perpetuating themselves. They’re serving a particular need, but they’re not trying to put themselves out of business.

FISHER: They would say, “This might harm our ability to raise money and food to feed poor people.”

ACRES U.S.A. In Big Hunger you profile the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as a contrast to conventional anti-hunger groups. CIW obtained a number of victories in its long campaign to raise the piece rate for tomato pickers by $0.01 a pound. It’s a great story, but why did you include it?

FISHER: I wanted to tell the story of an organization that interacts with the food system differently than anti-hunger groups do. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has worked with some of the most marginalized people in the country, who are highly food-insecure and often hungry, but they are not providing them with baskets of food. Instead they’re educating people about their rights and trying to build their political and economic power. Shockingly, there have been examples of slavery among farmworkers in Florida as late as the 1990s, and the CIW has been instrumental in putting a halt to that. They’re accomplishing their goals through organizing and by making a claim on the largest economic actors in the food system that they need to change their business practices and treat these workers more fairly. That is 180 degrees different from the way the anti-hunger community has approached that issue. CIW has brilliant organizers and is incredibly strategic with comparatively very little money. I think they listen to what people have to say. The anti-hunger community could learn much from what they do.

ACRES U.S.A. One bright spot in terms of connecting hunger and farmers has been the programs that give low-income people more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. What do these programs do and how significant are they for the recipients and farmers?

FISHER: There are three programs to highlight. The Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides about $20 million a year to WIC moms to buy produce at farmers’ markets. Another version of that does the same thing for seniors with a little bit more money. Those programs have been very important for establishing and subsidizing farmers markets in low-income communities. They help bring access to fresh produce to the communities at large, not just to those recipients. Especially in New York City, there are a lot of great examples. The third and newest program is SNAP incentives. It’s called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, or FINI. It evolved first in communities and then was put into the Farm Bill When SNAP recipients spend a certain amount of SNAP benefits at the market, they get rewarded with a dollar-for-dollar or a 50-cent per dollar incentive to buy fruits and vegetables. It makes fruits and vegetables more affordable and encourages greater purchasing and consumption. In the last Farm Bill Congress passed a $100 million program — $20 million a year — to implement this program. It is not exclusively for farmers’ markets. Some of the programs are in retail institutions. It has built a market for that produce and helped farmers survive. It’s a great use of the money and is getting good publicity for the SNAP program. But the most important thing about FINI is that it’s a model, potentially a very good one, for how the SNAP program could support local regional agriculture while also improving recipients’ nutritional profile. Obviously, the funding would need to be a lot larger and ultimately it probably should be integrated into the SNAP program as a whole, and SNAP program rules changed to incentivize those products.

ACRES U.S.A. As the former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, you played an important role in fostering all sorts of innovative approaches to hunger and local food systems. What are some of the models and accomplishments that came out of that work?

FISHER: Around 2005 or so I wrote a report with WHY Hunger, then known as World Hunger Year, called “Building the Bridge,” profiling a number of innovative anti-hunger programs that used a community food security approach. They were things like the CSAs and farm stands of the Pittsburgh Food Bank and the Capital Area Food Bank. During that first decade or 15 years of work, a small cadre of food banks embraced a sustainable agriculture approach. A larger number of food banks worked on nutrition education or community economic development, or were doing community gardens or job training programs. We now hold the Closing the Hunger Gap conference every two years. This conference is a place where folks can talk about their efforts to change the dynamics in the food-banking world. After nibbling around the edges for years, people are finally starting to address the core issues with the food-banking model. They’re talking about everything from evaluation and how to treat clients differently to key economic issues and the racism and oppression inherent in food banking. I’m on the planning committee for Closing the Gap this year. We expect at least 500 people. Many of the folks involved in this network are program staff, whereas maybe the people at the top, like the food bank executive director or development director, haven’t fully bought in. I see the anti-hunger community moving in a very positive direction. This is not to say there aren’t still fundamental challenges, such as the conflict of interest with food bank donors and internal power dynamics with their boards. But I’m very pleased that people are paying more attention to health, food quality and sustainability, and food banks have begun embracing those values more strongly.

Get more information on Andy Fisher and his book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.