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The Problem with Charitable Food: How to Really Address Food Insecurity

Posted on August 26, 2021
Jar of coins labeled charity

By Natalie Shaak, Operations Manager

Food insecurity has taken center stage as the pandemic exposed many families to challenges they have never seen before. Images of food bank lines running miles long and bare store shelves filled the airways, bringing hunger to the center of conversation for many who never noticed it before.

However, for almost almost 1 in 4 families, food insecurity was a concern before COVID-19. For many of those families the only options they have are turning to SNAP (food stamps) which they may or may not be eligible for or food banks, which in most cases are just a short term bandage covering a gaping wound that needs to be healed.

As a member of a collegiate sorority (and later as a fraternity/sorority advisor), I have participated in and organized numerous food drives for local food pantries. I have gone through my kitchen cabinets to collect boxes of pasta and cans of beans to donate to local drives. I have purchase Thanksgiving turkeys for families at my local grocery store. I have even volunteered hours to sort through donated meat and rotten bananas at my local hunger relief distribution center. I can say I felt good about my efforts to “end hunger” in my community.

But how much impact did I actually make? It wasn’t until I joined the staff of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities that I realized how those charitable activities were more about making myself feel good than about actually addressing the very real issue of hunger and food insecurity.

There are more than 15,000 food banks/pantries in the U.S. and they distribute millions of emergency meals to families in need. But that is their intended purpose - emergency food. They are not meant to be used for years. Most charitable organizations addressing hunger focus on the immediate needs of people experiencing food insecurity by offering emergency meals and food products directly to those in need in their moment of most dire need. That work was never more needed than during the pandemic. But in reality, they are doing very little to truly solve hunger and food insecurity.

To make a long-term impact and effectively eradicate food insecurity in families, research and advocacy must take place to address the root causes of food insecurity, which share many of the same root causes of poverty in general, including:

  • Lack of access to living-wage employment
  • Inconsistent access to healthy food in all neighborhoods
  • Increased food costs
  • Increased cost of living including housing, childcare, utilities, healthcare, and other basic needs
  • Inadequate public assistance benefits
  • Barriers to applying for and receiving public assistance
  • Lack of individual savings for emergencies
  • Racism and discrimination

The challenge in addressing food insecurity is that many of the root causes are highly interconnected and complicated. It is not as easy as dropping a few canned goods in a collection bin or donating a few hours to volunteer at a food pantry. To support long-term efforts in eradicating hunger, major policy and cultural changes need to take place. In order to do this, political action is necessary.

Every day citizens can support the development of a more food secure nation by:

  • Learning more about the issue of food insecurity and potential solutions
  • Sharing information about food insecurity and solution with their networks
  • Contacting political leaders to demand legislation enacting necessary changes
  • Voting for candidates who are committed to policies that support developing food security for all (See the below for a list of policies that support food security)

In order to truly address food insecurity long-term we cannot lean on food pantries and food banks as a solution. We must:

Posted in Food Security, Policy Impact, natalie-shaak