Stuffed and Starved, part 3: "Perpetuating the Problem"

When federal funding started to get taken away from programs aimed at helping people become free of the chains of poverty, and the burden shifted to having non profits and charities take care of people and the needs that they had, no one could have imagined that the problem would get as out of hand as it has.

In 1980 in the US, there were less than a million hungry people. There were 226 million people in the US at that time. That means that 0.4% of our country didn't know where their next meal was coming from. And all of this with only 200 food banks. Nationally.

Today, there are more than 50 million hungry people. There are 314 million people in the US. This means that 16% of our country doesn't know where their next meal is coming from...and all of this with more than 40,000 food banks across the nation.

A 99.5% increase in the number of food banks yielded a 98% increase in the number of food insecure people. There is no one that should read that and be okay with that.

I understand that there are many factors that go into these increases. Our national and state economies, local policies, cost of food, number of jobs, etc. But, I can tell you there aren't many hungry people tonight that are wondering why they don't have food...they just know that they don't have food.

At some point, it will take someone to stop shirking responsibility and blaming others and accept the burden that it is US that let it happen, and only US that can fix it.

Our local food distribution system is simple: give food to people who need it. The systemic structure of this food distribution system was born out of panic. Millions more in need. Thousands of new food banks. Resources had to be streamlined as fast as possible to the masses. We started providing only what we could in the beginning...the essentials. Green beans. Corn. Fruit. Peanut Butter. Jelly. Canned Pasta. Mac and Cheese. Hamburger Helper. The more people came, the more we provided these food items. We had to. They were the cheapest. They were the easiest to get. They were simple for people to buy, because they were always on sale, on nearly every endcap and so we began mass distribution of food that slowly started to turn the tide of our national health. By solving one problem, we created another. It was only a mere illusion that we were being solvent, however, but our methods of determining success were also wrong.

Hunger, meet your ugly cousin malnourishment. Mass processed food distribution, meet your new friend obesity.

We never meant to do this. We had good intentions. The problem just got so large, so fast, that we couldn't help it.

Earlier last year, in 2012, Just Food began to understand some of these challenges. After hearing many of our clients couldn't eat the food that we were giving them, due to the fact they were oversupplied, had dietary restrictions, or didn't know how to prepare it properly, we began asking questions. We found that our clients were eager to give answers. Isn't it funny that we spend most of our time assuming we know the answers, and then wondering where we went wrong?

I remember the campaign we were ready to launch called "pick peanut butter." Our food acquisition committee had worked so hard on coming up with a campaign to help us get the thing that was the most expensive and difficult for us to get our hands on. Then, we found out that people didn't need peanut butter.

I remember the conversation I had with the elderly lady who told me she had about 40 jars of peanut butter in her pantry. "Every pantry I go to in town gives me peanut butter," she said.

My heart sank.

It became very clear to me that food banks across the United States, were, for lack of a better way to put it, perpetuating their own existence. By making assumptions, and not ever asking the ever-so-important million dollar question...

If what we're doing is important, why is the problem getting progressively worse? To bring it home:

In 1980 in Douglas County, 9,000 people were in poverty (https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/census/1960/1980-Census-by-County.xls)

Today, more than 26,000 people are in poverty in Douglas County (http://www.city-data.com/county/Douglas_County-KS.html)

The number of those who are hungry continues to get worse and worse. Agencies continue to grow larger and larger, with more staff, more resources, larger buildings, bigger vehicles, and more need. But to what end?

We wrestled with this question, and completely changed the course that our work was heading towards. We scrapped our way of doing things. And we started over.

Join us tomorrow for the rest of the story.

Tagged: investment, different, impact, hunger, investing, 2013, starting over, just food

Comments

Marilyn Hull 12 months ago

It is the rare nonprofit exec who has the guts to admit that his/her organization's way of doing things has been perpetuating, if not compounding, the very problems it seeks to alleviate.

Great series so far, Jeremy. Can't wait for the rest of the story.

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Chris Tilden 12 months ago

Change is not easy. Thanks, Jeremy and Just Food, for seeing the need for change and for rethinking how to improve the lives of those who struggle with hunger in Douglas County.

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