I began working on this article the same day (September 8, 2015) that the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the results of its annual food security survey. The news wasn’t good. According to what is the best count we have of hungry Americans, 48 million people, or 14.3 percent of us, are considered “food insecure” or have “very low food security.” The first category refers to people who, to put it simply, experience uncertainty as to where their next meal is coming from. The second category, which includes 18 million Americans, or 5.6 percent of us, are people who suffer more severe and frequent forms of uncertainty.
These numbers sound bad, and they are, but they are even worse when you look back to the beginning of this century. The 2000 USDA food security census placed 10 percent and 3 percent of us, respectively, in these categories. In other words, the richest country in the world has not only made no progress in reducing the number of people who struggle to feed themselves, we are actually going backwards.
But food headlines don’t stop with hunger. As many of us know, exceeding a healthy weight — referred to as obesity and overweight — has essentially eclipsed tobacco consumption as the nation’s number one public health concern. According to the Center for Disease Control, 35 percent of adult Americans are cutting their lives short with obesity, a number that exceeds the 1994 level of 23 percent by nearly half. One result: about 10 percent of Americans are diabetic (for the recipients of private and public food aid, the number is 33 percent).
There is one more important element of our national food story that claws its way into our consciousness on a daily basis, and that is the consequences of industrial-scale food production and manufacturing. So-called “Big Food” producers and manufacturers load our air and water with toxic levels of pollutants and animal waste, fill livestock with unnecessary amounts of antibiotics, and transform raw food ingredients into products often packed with unhealthy quantities of chemicals, salt, sugar, and fat. The Environmental Protection Agency found, for instance, that the number of impaired water bodies had risen to 41,586 in 2012 , and that agricultural non-point pollution is the greatest source of impairment in lakes and rivers. Though we are now hearing with some frequency how food corporations are reforming their practices — e.g. reformulating food products to reduce the sugar content — they have a long way to go before their practices and products are healthy, humane, and sustainable.
This is the state of our food system at the mid-point of the millennium’s second decade. It is the place where we produce, process, distribute, and consume the essential nutrients for life, but the problems associated with our food supply affect nearly every one of us somewhat, and many of us severely. As we look at today’s data and cast an eye back at yesterday’s, we have to ask ourselves why, if the so-called food revolution has been underway for fifty years, has so little progress has been made.
Yes, there is a strong argument that the food system has failed us, that it is responsible for a host of evils that only the most sainted and self-reliant among us could avoid. This is a claim I partially accept, and one I will discuss further. But I want to explore another idea, one I’ve come to reluctantly embrace as a result of working for and with numerous food organizations, campaigns, and causes for forty-five years: we have failed the food system. By “we,” I mean the vast army of individuals, organizations, and agencies that have claimed a stake in making good, healthy, and fair food available to all.
I don’t mean to imply that any one person or entity has necessarily performed their tasks in a slipshod manner, but I do believe that there has been a failure to achieve long-term, lasting, and comprehensive success because of the food movement’s inability to collaborate. While we may each do a heck of a job running a food pantry, organizing a farmers’ market, or advocating for Congress to add more money to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps), when it comes to working together we are out of sync and without leadership.
This lack of exchange and interface between groups leads to another roadblock to collaboration: we become overly committed to our strategies, abjuring the kind of critical analysis of our own programs that can lead to necessary reform. This kind of parochialism is evident, for instance, with SNAP. As a program historically rooted in racist and classist assumptions that poor people can’t be trusted to responsibly manage cash forms of public assistance, it has evolved into a uniquely American and relatively large form of the nation’s social welfare policy, unlike anything else in other developed nations. Its defenders and advocates have of course pushed back relentlessly at any attempt to reduce funding, but they have also treated its basic tenets as unassailable, and its role within a larger food movement as separate and apart.
Granted, on a sector-by-sector basis, our efforts can look enormously impressive. The local food movement is booming with over 8,000 farmer’s markets (there were barely a few hundred in the 1970s), and over 40,000 schools are buying food from nearby farmers (nary a local carrot had found its way into school cafeterias until the late 1990s). At some of the country’s most elite institutions of higher learning, a national, student-run organization called Real Food Challenge has secured commitments from hundreds of colleges and universities to collectively purchase at least a billion dollars of food annually that is defined as “healthy, fair, and green” by 2020. But as we have seen time again in the food movement, good intentions to right the food system’s wrong often ignore the creeping demons of its failures. Since 2011, almost concurrently with the rise of The Real Food Challenge, nearly 298 college and university food banks have been established to serve hungry students.
Though a dubious measure of success, over 200 very large food bank warehouses dot the American landscape, distributing billions of pounds of free or nearly free food annually to over 60,000 emergency food sites. Again, a short historical view tells a tale. Not a single warehouse or regionally oriented food bank existed prior to the late 1970s. Both their number and growing size often makes them the most visible and dominant non-profit organization in most communities.
With the intent of reducing obesity and improving local economies, local and state governments have started to play a more prominent role in correcting the failings of the food system. According to a 2012 survey of municipal food policies conducted by Michigan State University (scheduled to be updated in 2016), an average of three food policies per municipality have been created. The National Conference of State Legislatures reviewed the food policy activity of state legislative sessions from 2012 through 2014 and found that thirty-six states had enacted over ninety bills that created various measures to improve food access and promoting food security.
As charity feeding sites proliferate and federal food spending escalates, it is true that tens of millions of Americans are kept from hunger’s door. But unfortunately all of this private and public largesse has not turned the ship around. This lack of progress was affirmed by a Feeding America research brief, Food Banks: Hunger’s New Staple, that used data from 61,000 food client interviews to conclude that “families no longer visit ‘emergency food’ sources for temporary relief, but rely on food pantries as a supplemental food source.” When we have cash and enough SNAP benefits on our EBT card, we go to Wal-Mart. When we don’t, we turn to the local food pantry.
Explanations for the lack of progress abound, one being that we live in unprecedented economic times. The Great Recession’s wrecking ball scattered us like ten-pins before the crushing weight of private greed and inadequate government oversight. As a result, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits (formerly called “food stamps”) soared from 26 million in 2006 to 49 million at the recession’s peak. Yet even today, at the end of 2015 with the recession’s aftershocks reduced to the barest of tremors, about 46 million Americans remain on SNAP. And while unemployment has dropped to 5.1 percent, almost one-third of all U.S. workers live on wages that are at or below 185 percent of the poverty level, which makes them eligible for some federal nutrition programs.
Recent mortality research by the 2015 Nobel Prize-winning economist, Angus Deaton, and his colleague, Anne Case, puts a tragic face on the declining fortunes of a growing class of Americans. They identified a dramatic rise in death rates for middle-aged white U.S. males largely due to suicide, drug abuse, and physical pain. These growing rates were associated with low education and poor job prospects. More frequently we are finding that hunger, bodies worn down before their time, self-abuse, ill health, and suicide are rife and rising in no-wage/low-wage America.
As far as obesity goes, we have been fighting the battle of the bulge with billions of public and private dollars for nearly twenty years. In spite of Michelle Obama’s best dance moves and her tenacious insistence that school meals become healthier, we’ve only seen a small tick downward in childhood obesity rates.
A Republican Congressional majority that is too ready to trash improved nutrition standards, and the glacial pace of change from the food industry are both worthy of blame. But as I gaze in disbelief at my home state of New Mexico’s obesity rates for third graders — 29 percent for Native Americans, 20 percent for Hispanics, and 10 percent for whites — I’m depressed by the distance we must travel to reduce such enormous racial and ethnic health disparities.
Though prior efforts have been worthy, the results have been troubling. More fundamental and lasting progress will not be made until the numerous sub-movements that make up the larger food movement learn how to collaborate far better than they do now. We, and I count myself a participant, must find a way to set common goals and a shared understanding of the problems; we must agree on what progress looks like, which means creating a shared measurement system; we must make sure various actions are mutually reinforcing, even if aimed at addressing different issues; we must ensure that the groups, sub-movements and major sectors are in continuous communication so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing; and, ideally, we must create a backbone organization(s) that serves as a hub so that each group and sub-movement can do its job. What I’ve described is the collective impact model, which, with only a few local and state exceptions, does not exist in any meaningful way in the U.S. food movement.
There are many impediments to implementing a collective impact approach, but none of them are insurmountable. For instance, we see the continuing reluctance of national anti-hunger groups — from food banks to SNAP advocates — to upgrade the nutritional quality of emergency food (e.g. more fresh produce at food pantries) and to align federal food benefits with healthy dietary guidelines (e.g. restricting the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugary soft drinks). But when groups have gathered at the local and state levels to discuss these issues, increasingly there is a consensus around what needs to be done, and in some cases, as with Minnesota Food Strategy and Michigan Food Charter) a common agenda emerges.
Another challenge to linking arms for the common good is knowing what counts for each of, and what each of us counts. If I think that the food movement’s success is determined by such things as how many varieties of goat cheese are available at my farmers’ market, and your indicator of success is how many pounds of food your pantry gives away, then it’s not likely we’ll have much incentive to work together. But if we can agree that healthy food for all and a vibrant local farm economy go hand-in-hand, we can devise mutually supportive program strategies that are measurable, thus enhancing our collective impact.
At the national level, groups have been struggling for two decades to join agriculture, environmental and climate, food security, and human health issues into one “joined-up” food policy, most likely through the so-called “Farm Bill.” While the realization of that goal could be light-years away, a glimmer of hope came during the spring of 2015 (though it has more than likely faded as of this writing) through another national policy, the five-year update of the nation’s Dietary Guidelines. Among its many progressive and insightful features, the expert government dietary panel stated that, “Meeting current and future food needs will depend on two concurrent approaches: altering individual and population dietary choices and patterns and developing agricultural and production practices that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources…” In other words, eat like your life and the life of the planet depend on it.
Additional dietary recommendations addressed household food security and access to healthy and affordable food in so-called “food deserts.” Nothing this far-reaching in the annals of national food policy had ever been uttered before. Because the sugar, meat, and dairy industries are solidly arrayed against making these scientifically based linkages, the recommendations are not likely to find their way into national policy anytime soon.
Money matters in other ways as well, not just with respect to how it shapes national food policy. Having the financial capacity to take on the wrongs of the food system and to create alternatives is essential. But as the Bible says, money can also be the root of all evil. Private and public funders who do not require meaningful collaboration between like-minded grantees — or at the very least, who do not fund the capacity-building necessary to develop effective collaborations — are sowing the seeds of fragmentation. Sometimes funding the “glue” that might promote cohesion among many groups is far better than funding a single program activity or organization.
A recent conversation I had with a foundation program officer in Pittsburgh underscored this dilemma. She noted that her foundation wanted to support collaborative work between its region’s food organizations, but that at the same time the foundation was being swamped by requests from an ever-growing number of these groups. Each sub-movement — e.g. local food, anti-hunger, community-based food education — has evolved its own methods and tools over time through an uncoordinated and under-evaluated process of trial and error, and sometimes each with its own distinct sub-sets of funders, conferences, and professional associations. While this sometimes crude application of good old American entrepreneurism has led to some powerful innovations, it has also hindered the development of a shared understanding of the causes of our food problems. Yes, differing values and ideologies are also deterrents to bridge building, but without a commitment to finding a common cause, there’s little hope of forging common cause. In other words, collective impact will remain the elusive holy grail from which too few will ever drink.
With the intent of digging down to root causes, I feel some urgency that we recognize that the single greatest indicator of hunger — and, to a lesser extent, obesity and the ills of the industrial food system — is American income and wealth inequality. As Thomas Piketty’s tome, Capital in the 21st Century, has made it abundantly clear, America is the most unequal nation on earth, and it is neither morally nor economically sustainable for the top 10 percent of a nation’s income earners to gobble up 50 percent of the income. If current economic policy trends continue (the top 10 percent control 72 percent of the nation’s private capital), capital accumulation and the income divide will only grow greater.
The consequences of income and wealth inequality are not limited to how many houses and yachts the nation’s top one percent of income earners and wealth holders can buy. As Piketty writes, “It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.” It is hard to imagine a food movement functioning effectively without embracing the fight for far greater income and wealth equality. If, for instance, we could raise the minimum wage to just $10.10 per hour — an amount already out of date in comparison with cities like Los Angeles and Seattle that are well on their way to a $15 per hour — we would reduce SNAP enrollment by 4 to 6 million people and the program’s cost to the taxpayer by several billion dollars. As it stands now, our social and economic policies don’t hold the private sector accountable for paying living wages, and instead shift the burden for such things as feeding people to the public sector.
In spite of my bleak assessment of the current state of food organization functionality and the limited scope of our analysis, there are bright spots and opportunities to build on. One promising venue for developing more collaboration are local and state food policy councils (sometimes called “food councils” or “food system networks”). Their numbers have doubled in the last four years to 215, partly due to the growing realization that there is a need to coordinate the work of so many local and state food and food-related organizations. As indicated above, the local and state governments are stepping up to the food policy plate through thousands of administrative and legislative actions that address specific food system needs. Food policy councils are often the catalyst for these actions. Many local FPCs (e.g. Indianapolis) have also utilized the collective impact model and some state FPCs (e.g. Massachusetts) have developed statewide food plans.
Some food banks are showing promise as well. Assembled under the progressive umbrella of the “Closing the Hunger Gap” conference, hundreds of creative activists have met twice over the last three years to discuss how food banks can engage more stakeholders and conduct public policy advocacy that addresses systemic causes of hunger. One example is the North Alabama Food Bank led by the visionary Katherine Strickland. As she put it at the 2015 Portland, Oregon conference, “The food bank’s mission has evolved to shoulder the risk to address poverty,” not just treat its symptoms. To that end they are employing economic development strategies that are providing financial credit to their region’s farmers, training farmers in food safety and handling methods, and operating a food hub which has generated $500,000 in local farm sales to schools and the food bank itself.
But only serving one’s organizational mission rather than working for a larger common vision is still the norm. Government bureaucracies have yet to break free from their siloes, academic departments avoid inter-disciplinary work, and non-profit organizations defend their turf with tenacity. Transformative breakthroughs that can resolve the problems of food security, diet-related illness, and industrialization will only come when the players are aligned like a well-coached team.
Right now, the food system landscape resembles the small town American square which only has room for one or two statues whose noble presence reinforces the myth that we owe our salvation to a miniscule number of courageous individuals. Just as we must give our sculptors the license to imaginatively represent the common enterprise of the many — raising the “we” above the “me” — collaboration among food system stakeholders must be recognized, rewarded, and supported. It is demanding and often frustrating work, but without a commitment to collaborative effort and the principles of collective impact, we can only look forward to a kind of never-ending warfare where the shape of the battlefield shifts from year to year but a lasting peace is never achieved.
Mark Winne is a co-founder of a number of food and agriculture policy groups including the City of Hartford Food Policy Commission, the Connecticut Food Policy Council, End Hunger Connecticut!, and the national Community Food Security Coalition. He was an organizer and chairman of the Working Lands Alliance, a statewide coalition working to preserve Connecticut’s farmland, and is a founder of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Mark currently writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community food assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication and food policy council work for the Community Food Security Coalition. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Hartford Courant, the Boston Globe, The Nation, In These Times, Sierra Magazine, Orion Magazine, Successful Farming, Yes! Magazine, and numerous organizational and professional journals. Mark blogs regularly at www.markwinne.com and is a regular contributor www.civileats.org. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press 2008) and the forthcoming Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture(Beacon Press, 2010).