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COLUMN: Could our nation's food banks be perpetuating poverty instead of fixing it?

Sept. 6 event to explore the question
Posted: 5:00 AM, Sep 05, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-05 13:12:22-04
COLUMN: Could our nation's food banks be perpetuating poverty instead of fixing it?

CINCINNATI -- Here's an important -- but upsetting -- question:

Have you ever wondered if the things you and your community were doing to help people were actually hurting them instead?

If the answer is no, then you probably haven't read "Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups" by Andrew Fisher.

Fisher's book delivers a stinging criticism of the nation's food banks and food pantries, along with the corporations that donate millions of dollars and tons of unused food to keep them going.

Andrew Fisher (Photo by Nicole Weinstock)

The problem with America's emergency food system, Fisher argues, is that it doesn't do anything to attack the root causes of poverty that lead to hunger in the first place.

That doesn't mean he's trying to make food banks -- or even corporations -- into bad guys, he told me during a recent interview.

"It's not that anybody's doing the wrong thing in general," he said. "In general, I think we've developed a very intuitive, simplistic model that isn't really meeting the needs of the hungry that much anymore except on a very basic level."

Fisher called out Wal-Mart, which he believes is doing the wrong thing, as the exception to that statement. He writes about how Wal-Mart gets tax write-offs and great publicity for its donations to food banks while at the same time paying wages so low that many of its employees become clients of the very food banks that accept the company's donations.

"There are some corporations, and Wal-Mart is probably the easiest one to pick on, that could be paying their workers more," he told me. "I impugn their motives, but I don't want to say they're indicative of the nature of corporate philanthropy in general. They're a particularly bad actor."

Fisher will be in Cincinnati Sept. 6 for a presentation and panel discussion at Xavier University's Cintas Center . Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio is sponsoring the event, which starts at 5:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio believes this is a conversation that the community needs to have, said Ted Bergh, the organization's CEO.

"The gospels say feed the hungry, and we do that," Bergh told me. "But we also need to get people from being hungry. Our focus is to try to change direction."

Full disclosure: I will be the moderator for the panel discussion, which will include local leaders who work daily to tackle our region's shameful poverty rate. Even if Catholic Charities hadn't invited me to be the moderator, however, this is a discussion I wouldn't want to miss.

Leading by example

That's partly because I have been covering our region's poverty problem for nearly five years for WCPO and 9 On Your Side, but it's also because I care about Greater Cincinnati. I grew up here, and my husband and I have raised our children here.

I want all of our neighbors to be able to raise their children without worrying about whether they will run out of food before the end of the month.

RELATED: What if you couldn't feed your own children?

Reading "Big Hunger" made me question whether many of our community's efforts are, at best, too little to make a dent in the problem and, at worst, helping to perpetuate the poverty that we need to reduce.

Freestore Foodbank CEO Kurt Reiber will be one of the panelists on Thursday. I talked with him about Fisher's criticism.

Reiber said some of Fisher's commentary reflects how national food bank organizations and their affiliates used to operate. However, he said many -- including Freestore Foodbank -- have changed their ways in recent years.

Four years ago, for example, Freestore Foodbank's management team and board of directors approved an increase in its base compensation for all employees to $14 per hour, he said. That has since increased to $14.50.

"We wanted to make sure we were modeling the behavior we wanted for-profit companies to emulate," Reiber said.

Kurt Reiber (Photo by Sarah Cook)

The company's efforts extend beyond its employees. Freestore Foodbank helps its clients connect with government benefits, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. It also serves as the "representative payee" for nearly 1,200 families that the courts have said must have someone serve as a trustee for them for financial purposes.

Then there's Freestore Foodbank's Cincinnati Cooks program, which has trained about 2,000 people for food service jobs over nearly 20 years.

Graduates of the program earn anywhere from $12 per hour to $16 per hour for starting pay, Reiber said.

Freestore Foodbank recently started another training program for careers in the logistics and warehousing industry called LIFT the TriState . The more than 40 people who have graduated from LIFT got jobs earning $14.50 an hour to $17.50 an hour, Reiber said, and many also have full benefits.

"There's a number of things we try to do to move the needle much farther than just trying to provide a bag of groceries," Reiber said.

The goal, the way Reiber sees it, is for Freestore Foodbank and other food banks across the country to use food as a way to connect with families that need other services to work their way out of poverty. The families are known by the acronym ALICE, which stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained Employed.

"More than 50 percent of the families that we service, maybe close to 70 percent, are earning an income but they're not earning enough to eat when it comes to the end of the month," Reiber said. "That's no way to live a life."

The power of potatoes

Fisher agrees.

That's why he argues food banks should be doing even more, such as advocating for a higher minimum wage, immigration reform and health care policies that protect families from economic ruin after a medical crisis.

Reiber said Freestore Foodbank's advocacy has come in the form of helping elected officials understand the organization's programs and its policies regarding wages and benefits for its own employees.

"I have long been advocating for changes to the various government assistance programs," Reiber said. "I think we can improve many of those state and federal programs and make them more user-friendly."

Fisher told me he knows change will be difficult for food banks, which rely on donations from corporations that don't necessarily support policy changes such as a higher minimum wage.

There are things that the rest of us can do to help, too, Fisher said.

"I wouldn't discourage anyone from volunteering or donating," he said. "But maybe they can write a letter in their check and say, 'I'd like this money to go to x, y or z.'"

One group in Ontario, Canada, organized food pantry volunteers into a union that speaks out for increased wages and greater investments into welfare programs, he said.

Reforming the United State's emergency food system won't be easy, and it won't happen quickly, Fisher said. But he has seen change that gives him hope.

He told me about this example: A potato farmer who was a big donor to a local food bank went to watch how the organization was packing and distributing his potatoes.

"He realized the potatoes being packed in the food pantry were going back to his own workers," Fisher said. "So he went back and raised the wages for his workers."

It's a small change in the whole scheme of things, but it was huge for those farm workers, whose higher wages gave them the dignity of being able to support their families on their own.

Freestore Foodbank has helped provide holiday meals for local families for decades.

More information about the Sept. 6 "Big Hunger" presentation and panel discussion is available online .

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty .

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may . To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.