“Occupy Hunger,” urges food justice advocate Andy Fisher

Last week, Appleseed was honored to join the University of Hawaiʻi Better Tomorrow Speaker Series, the Hawaii Community Foundation and others in hosting leading food security and hunger expert Andy Fisher in the islands. 

In his recent book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, Mr. Fisher argues that our current system of addressing hunger in the United States is actually perpetuating the problem by overlooking the root causes of food insecurity, like inadequate wages and community disinvestment. 

Band-Aid Solutions

At a well-attended talk at the William S. Richardson School of Law on Thursday, September 12, Fisher explained that food banks—which were originally created as an emergency solution for families experiencing temporary hardship—have become a stand-in for real government action to alleviate poverty. Over the past four decades, the number of food banks in the U.S. has grown to over 200, with 60,000 distribution sites serving more than 40 million Americans annually. 

This is largely by design. Across the U.S., food bank boards are comprised overwhelmingly of corporate partners, who define “success” with every pound of food distributed, and every person served. While on the surface, it appears that we make progress toward ending hunger with these measures, Fisher cautions that these are merely band aid solutions. In his book, he calls for a shift in thinking from “feed the need” to “shorten the line.” 

In Hawaiʻi, food banks are starting to explore more nuanced solutions that address what Fisher terms the “three-legged stool” of successful anti-hunger efforts: health, economic development and democracy. The Hawaii Food Bank, which serves both Oʻahu and Kauaʻi, has made major strides in offering more fresh produce to their clients in recent years. They also recently hired a community engagement director, who is responsible for advocating for policies that will help their clients thrive and succeed. On Hawaiʻi Island (where Fisher was able to visit several small farms and meet with community groups), the Food Basket has developed relationships with local farmers, and is able to offer clients subscription produce boxes that SNAP clients can purchase for half price. The Maui Food Bank has been involved in efforts to get more farmers’ markets approved to accept SNAP.

Benefiting from the Status Quo

Fisher also argued that corporations like Walmart, who have made “solving hunger” a cornerstone of their community giving programs, could actually make a much bigger impact by paying their employees a living wage. 

In fact, Fisher pointed out that many corporations actually benefit from perpetuating the status quo, relying on government benefits to subsidize the wages of hundreds of thousands of their employees around the country, while at the same time lobbying against solutions (like unions or living wages) that could make a real impact. This makes sense for their bottom line, as large food retailers like Kroger and Walmart also acquire hundreds of millions of dollars annually in shopper SNAP benefits. By touting their position as a major funder of anti-hunger efforts, and occupying space on food bank boards, they are able to effectively deflect blame for the problem and tout themselves as liberators.

Occupy Hunger

Fisher calls upon advocates to “occupy hunger”—to take it back from corporate interests and shine a light on solutions that go beyond the quick fix of a single meal or food box. 

These solutions acknowledge a more holistic framework for addressing food insecurity—one that understands the interplay between public health, economic justice, and local food production at the community scale. 

Before his Thursday talk, Fisher was able to visit groups on Oʻahu and Hawaiʻi Island who are already putting some of these ideas into action. He hyped the recent Double Up legislative success, and pointed to institutional purchasing efforts like Hawaiʻi’s ‘Aina Pono Program as initiatives that should be invested in at the level required to meet the needs of all Hawaiʻi residents.

The great thing about these ideas is that they bring people together. Whether you’re passionate about local food production, land use, community health, ‘āina-based education, sustainable agriculture, or economic development, we can all find something to appreciate in this new way of conceiving of the anti-hunger field. And that is something that we will continue to integrate into our efforts at Appleseed in order to create a Hawaiʻi where all people have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.