5.2 million pounds of food. 46,973 food boxes. 7,000 individuals received services. In one year. From just one food share program.
The Linn Benton Food Share is a regional food bank for both Linn and Benton counties. They service thousands of people each year, serving as the central hub for 68 local nonprofits, including food pantries, meal sites, shelters, and other non-emergency programs. They do great work, but their work is not getting easier.
As Ryan McCambridge, Director of the Linn Benton Food Share, explains, the number of people served and the communities’ needs should be going down, according to measures like unemployment and the economy. But it’s not.
“Even though we are experiencing relatively low unemployment, the number of people we are serving isn’t dropping,” McCambridge adds. “46,973 boxes could put a food box in every seat at Reser stadium, and more on the outside. Each food box represents a family that had to come in that month.”
McCambridge says that the number of food boxes distributed has been “relatively flat over the last three years, but what is troubling is that the number hasn’t been going down.”
To contextualize that information, McCambridge adds that “the current numbers are much higher than in 2009-2010, at the height of the recession” when there was nationwide, community-wide need. “The 2017 number of boxes [was] 20% higher.”
Food Share and Food Bank Origins
In the 1960s, John van Hegel from Arizona was a volunteer in a food kitchen. Upon leaving one day, he was talking to a homeless mother who regularly went dumpster diving to get food for her family. She complained to him that there should be a place where stores can donate extra food like a bank, then people in need could go get it.
Hegel took the idea and ran with it, starting the first food bank in 1967. By 1979, a food bank network was created that has continued until today and is now called Feeding America. Feeding America’s website boasts that they “feed 46 million people at risk of hunger, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors.”
There are currently 323.1 million American citizens. That is 14.2% of Americans that have received food bank services.
Other food programs include soup kitchens that were particularly popular and necessary during the Great Depression. Soup kitchens were set up for temporary or emergency relief, but the book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups by Andrew Fisher, argues that these temporary programs, including food banks, have become their own industry.
A Bigger Problem
When asked what causes people to need food shares’ services, McCambridge admits to a messy answer that changes with the constraints placed on our population.
“Six to seven years ago, healthcare was the number one reason why people, themselves, said they were at the pantry,” McCambridge says. “Medical debt, or not enough money to pay for prescriptions, made many people not take their medications as frequently as they should, because they needed the money for food.”
McCambridge adds that “the Affordable Care Act has really put a dent in that number of people.” However, as he said earlier, the numbers of those in need are not going down.
“The number one reason now is housing costs, or the amount of money people have to put to rent. They get to the end of the month and don’t know how they’re going to make it,” says McCambridge. So they use available services like the food share and its affiliates to make ends meet.
“The troubling thing is that housing has always been high in Corvallis, but we are starting to hear the same reason in Albany and Lebanon,” he continues. “The housing market is heating up there and making it hard for people to make payments and still put food on the table.”
Hunger and food insecurity do not exist in a bubble. They are not fixed numbers, and they shift based on larger factors and debts including medical bills and housing, which then impact communities and the country as a whole.
McCambridge uses the example of medical debt and what he has seen at the Linn Benton Food Share to explain his perspective: “The example of healthcare is informative to me. ACA made health insurance available to folks, and that made an impact. Unfortunately, it coincided with high housing.”
He continues that “wages are also a part of it. In terms of the idea that hunger is a symptom of bigger macroeconomic problems the country faces, that is absolutely true.”
“Food banks can partner with other organizations to make our communities a little more resilient,” McCambridge said. “Those medical debts we can do something about, but it needs a longer term solution. We have a responsibility to talk about how hunger is a symptom of bigger problems, but how you educate people about the topic is the balancing act.”
Food Insecurity + Large Corporations = Food Bank Industry
When asked about the cause of food insecurity and if he had heard of Big Hunger, McCambridge was unfazed. He knows that hunger is a result of a larger, systemic issue. An issue that involves wages, cost of living, and social services.
The CEO of Feeding America makes $696,119, and the organization deals with over $2 billion in revenue; much of it is non-cash contributions of food inventory. What is the problem with so much inventory that is not cash? Fisher argues that the system itself gives significant benefits to large corporations who encourage the necessity of the food system in the first place.
In Big Hunger, Fisher argues with multiple examples to show how big corporations benefit from, and cause, food insecurity. One of his examples was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Walmart and their practices.
Food insecurity continues due to a vicious cycle. Walmart, and many other large corporations, do not pay workers a living wage while rent and the cost of living rise with inflation. Many workers resort to applying for social services like food stamps, which they then use at their place of work, and that company gets federal funding for the stamps used.
An incendiary report from Americans for Tax Fairness, as described by Forbes, used data from Wisconsin to estimate how much Walmart costs the average American taxpayer. Due to low benefits and wages, as described above, the report “found that a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year.”
In addition, the report and the article critique Walmart for profiting off of their workers who have to get food stamps. Walmart captures 18% of the SNAP (or food stamp) market, which the ATF estimates is “$13.5 billion out of $76 billion in [total] food stamp sales in 2013” alone.
This report, and the coverage of it, has received a good amount of censure, some of the points bringing to light a context that isn’t provided in Forbes and similar articles. Many editorials and opinion pieces from such places as Investors.com note what is not said in the ATF report.
They point out that the study was conducted only using data from Wisconsin and then applied to each state, which is problematic because each state would have different data sets. Additionally, the ATF report made some assumptions for lacking data, including an assumption that anyone who received social services was receiving all social services, from food stamps to child care and Medicaid.
Assuming that someone who received one social service used all of them is not always accurate and would bloat figures of how much assistance was provided in monetary terms; however, how much bloat that causes is uncertain.
While these critiques point to possibly exaggerated assumptions in the report, it does not mean that the report is completely wrong. The trend still demonstrates an increasing number of workers using federal aid because they don’t get paid enough while Walmart (and many other companies) profit off of food stamps.
Another important point for large companies that sell food products and do not pay workers enough is how much food these corporations donate to food banks. Whether the food is not selling well or is nearing an expiration date doesn’t matter; corporations still get tax breaks on those food donations.
In addition to saving money instead of throwing food away, corporations benefit from the positive image they receive when donating the food to a food bank. Who doesn’t praise charity, especially when they don’t see the motives?
As an important side note, after all of this criticism—especially when the ATF initially published the report in 2013—Walmart has been trying to better their image. Now, the average hourly wage is $13.69 for full-time employees, which constitutes almost half of their staff. The other half still has lower wages, but things are possibly getting a little better for some employees.
Food Shares as Forces for Change
The world of food donations is not all doom and gloom. McCambridge noted multiple programs and ways in which the Linn Benton Food Share is working within the community to make it more resilient and to help address the real issues of wages and costs of living that cause food insecurity.
The LB Food Share recently started a program with Samaritan in Albany. They are screening for patients who are returning to a food insecure home, as many people are readmitted shortly after returning home, because they may not have enough food to get them by and retain their health.
Samaritan and the food share “provide a four week supplement to get [patients] through the danger period of them being readmitted, thus reducing medical costs and preventing those people from incurring more medical debt,” says McCambridge.
McCambridge is particularly proud of their Gleaners program: “We have fourteen gleaning groups, made up of low-income individuals. After farmers’ contracts have been fulfilled, many open the field up to gleaners who harvest the rest of the products, take it back to a distribution site, and give it to others in need.”
“We have 7000 individuals in our gleaning groups,” McCambridge says. To qualify to be a gleaner, an individual can be at 200% of the federal poverty level or below, “but most are around 100% of the federal poverty level.”
He says that “the demographics of the gleaners range from individuals, families with kids, and the elderly. Gleaning provides a once per week supplemental food source, which makes getting by on such a limited income a little easier.”
The food share helps organize gleaning efforts, like a clearing house, connecting gleaning groups to individuals, farms, and companies that have extra food they would like to donate. From a surplus of apples in the backyard to an entire field that could be picked over again, gleaners do it all.
Even more, the gleaning programs themselves are split between active members and adoptees. Adoptees are usually homebound and receive deliveries from active members.
“It’s about food, but also about checking in and building community” McCambridge notes. Many adoptees are elderly and benefit from these efforts, the friendships, and sense of caring they provide.
While McCambridge says he thinks food banks and food shares will likely be around for quite some time, he thinks they will change and become a larger advocate for healthy community food systems.
“It’s not just about providing calories,” he says. “It’s also about breaking down barriers between volunteer and recipient. Sometimes it’s about providing a safe environment for people who are struggling, which can go a long way to people feeling brighter after visiting.”
“Food banks have a responsibility to do more than just provide food,” he continues. “We are redefining where we fit and what our main responsibilities are.”
McCambridge is equally concerned about what the future might hold. “In 2018, there are troubling things on the horizon. The ACA and food stamps may be impacted. There’s a lot of speculation about federal changes and what they might be.”
McCambridge remains hopeful, as we all should. Hopeful and active in encouraging positive changes and stronger community relationships.
By Kristen Edge