Letter to Philanthropy

Philanthropy must go beyond charity to fund transformational food systems change

COVID-19 has raised hard questions about food, hunger and human rights. As feeding lines lengthened  across the world in 2020, millions of dollars were  directed to food banks addressing the sudden spike in  household food insecurity amidst increased amounts of food waste along agro-industrial supply chains. In the United States for example, the  federal government  leaned heavily on charitable food networks to distribute over $5 billion worth of agricultural surplus in 2020, banking on the philanthropic sector to foot the distribution bill. In  Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union and across the world, governments  announced similar food purchase and redistribution programs to redirect agricultural surplus  toward food insecure communities. 

Over the past forty years, food charity has captured the social imagination of funders,  policy  makers and concerned citizens eager to resolve the contradictions of a society that produces hunger amidst plenty. Decades  of investment into food banking infrastructure have woven a porous safety net for millions of low income households left behind by rising inequality, low wages, and the erosion of public entitlement  programs. While food banks work to address some of the immediate symptoms of an exploitative  food system, they do not solve the problem of hunger. In fact, the focus on emergency responses leaves these organizations unable to meaningfully  address race, gender and class dynamics thereby reinforcing and perpetuating  structural inequities t. 

The inequities in our food systems that perpetuate poverty and food insecurity were in place long before the novel coronavirus outbreak.  While those working in fields, processing factories, kitchens, grocery stores, regional food banks and local charities are now clearly deemed “essential”, their labor has long been exploited and devalued by a racist, colonial, sexist and capitalist food system that prioritizes shareholder profit over community well-being and human rights. Many of those essential workers are themselves vulnerable to food insecurity and rely on food banks to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, the private charitable emergency feeding system in the U.S.—the largest and most sophisticated in the world—has historically never been able to meet the demand or make a real dent in the rate of food insecurity, which has hovered between 11 and 15% of the population over the past 30 years.  In the UK, the number of food banks providing food parcels directly to families increased from about 58 to more than 2,800 in a ten-year span before the pandemic set in.  And, in Canada, the fraying of the social safety net in the 1980s ushered in a new era of institutionalized private charity, while food insecurity was measured at an all time high of 4.4 million households pre-pandemic in 2019.

The food insecurity we are now witnessing in so-called wealthy countries is not a new phenomenon. The silent violence of hunger that had long affected vulnerable communities suddenly faced with pandemic induced illness and unemployment amplified this long-standing problem, heightening public consciousness around household food insecurity by making it much more visible. Charitable giving by and corporate food donations may seem like a common-sense win-win response, yet as our neighbors and co-workers seek out charitable food assistance — many for the first time in their lives — yawning holes in the social safety net remain in plain sight. Emergency food systems pushed to their limits are compelled to grow beyond their limits, expanding a fragile system that for far too long has inadequately filled what is in fact a government responsibility. . As vertically integrated, just-in time agro-food supply chains frayed at the edges, the limits of our unsustainable productivist and profit-driven food system were exposed, revealing the true extent- and root causes – of the intersecting hunger, food and farm problems faced by the governments of rich-but-unequal countries.

We cannot afford to merely meet short term emergency needs during this time of great  transformation. Doing so would merely further cement food banks as an acceptable long-term response to food insecurity. Food is a human right to be guaranteed by the State with dignity, not a temporary need to be inadequately  met through charity.  The right to food is an entitlement that enables government accountability and ensures that equity, participation, access to information and access to justice are prioritized in any effort done to reduce hunger. Beginning to end hunger will involve re-imagining unjust hierarchies of power that corporate  charity tends to reinforce. Our funding strategies, both public and private, must seek to reform the  food production, distribution and labor practices and the punitive welfare policies that aggravate the  inequities currently mapping onto our feeding lines. Doing so will mean directly addressing decades  of corporate deregulation and welfare retrenchment, but even more so the histories of colonialism,  slavery and Indigenous genocide that continue to haunt contemporary foodways. 

It is thus critical that those with the power to allocate  resources make every effort to fund organizations that explicitly address the root causes of inequality  in our food system by pushing back against the monopolistic tendencies and ever greater  concentration of our food corporations, the uneven distribution of land and capital, and uneven  access to the institutional resources and political spaces that shape food policy. 

The Global Solidarity Alliance, a group of non-governmental organizations, national networks,  grassroots activists, and scholars concerned about hunger and poverty in wealthier countries, calls on the philanthropic community to abide by the following principles in its efforts to address issues  related to food and hunger in the years ahead. 

Call to Action for Philanthropy

  1. Commit to organizations in a spirit of slow philanthropy with the understanding that food system transformation is a long-term commitment to social change.
    • reduce data collection demands, including monitoring and evaluation pressures, on  front-line organizations serving those in need
    • standardize data collection practices across public and private funding networks
  2. Commit to projects and policy that shorten food bank lines through emphasizing the realization of the right to food, income security and investing in community wealth  building projects.
  3. Commit to grassroots organizations working to address the root causes of food system inequity including: 
    • projects led by people from Black, Indigenous and other historically marginalized and  oppressed communities. 
    • projects that abide by principles of democratic decision making. 
    • projects that prioritize agroecology, the social and political determinants of health, and climate justice. 
    • projects that prioritize the equitable redistribution of wealth 
  1. Commit to strengthening networks that contribute to the resilience of regional food systems. 
  2. Commit to strengthening networks that build power from the bottom up to reshape food policies that serve people over profit.
  3. Commit to funding organizations that involve experts-by-experience in decisionmaking and governance structures. 

The strategies, institutions and movements supported during this crisis will surely impact our food  and nutrition landscape for decades to come. We thus urge program officers, board members and  other decision makers in the philanthropic sector to fund interventions that go beyond food charity  to meaningfully engage in the food system transformation required to end hunger. 

The Global Solidarity Alliance