We can end hunger in America. The average community in the United States already possesses – and is likely already expending – enough resources to end hunger five times over, but likely is meeting only about one-fifth of the need because of how those resources are being mobilized and employed.
These facts are a result of a research study of hunger relief programs conducted in 1994-96 by Michigan State University, which became known as the Waste Not Want Not Project.
This research was prompted by a study of Michigan’s Kent County conducted in mid-1993 by the Heart of West Michigan United Way, which concluded that hunger was the area’s most pressing unmet need. Technically, hunger was tied with child abuse and neglect for the number one spot, but since significant aspects of that abuse and neglect included kids going hungry, hunger took the spotlight.
The United Way explained that research had not revealed starvation, but “had found hunger’s fingerprints everywhere.” It didn’t matter where they looked or what issue they looked into, hunger was always lurking in the shadows, having either caused or at least having exacerbated the problem. Problem pregnancies and the incidence of premature low birth-weight high-risk babies often linked back to poor prena- tal nutrition. Kids too listless or rest- less to pay attention to their lessons in school often tracked back to the fact that they were simply too hungry to care. In altogether too many classrooms school lunch was the only predictable food in many children’s lives.
Teens living in what is now known as “food insecurity” were much more likely to have health problems, get into trouble, use drugs or alcohol, drop out of school and attempt suicide than were teens who have reliable food access.
All age levels, if hungry, were more likely to commit crimes such as purse snatching, shoplifting, mugging, and breaking and entering in pursuit of food or the means to get food.
Women were more likely to engage in prostitution. Both sexes were more likely to experience health and mental health problems. Both were more likely to succumb to the temptations of drug and alcohol abuse in order to block out—at least temporarily—the pain, humiliation, fear and anger that comes from not having enough to eat or not being able to feed one’s family in the so-called “richest country in the world.”
Child abuse and other domestic violence often tracked back to that same stress. People would be on edge from being hungry or from being worried about food, and some spark — a crying baby, a whining child or a resentful comment — would trigger violence with occasionally tragic results.
Senior citizens too often had to choose between having food and getting the medicine or medical care they needed, or between having food and heating their home.
Obviously ending hunger wouldn’t eliminate drug and alcohol use, prostitution, domestic violence, or any of the other problems, but hunger was such an evident and obvious cause or contributing factor in so many specific instances of all of them that it was the United Way’s conclusion that we simply had to eliminate hunger if we ever hoped to make our community the kind of place we want it to be.
My agency, Second Harvest Gleaners Food Bank of West Michigan, Inc. (Now called Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank – ed.), is western Michigan’s regional nonprofit clearinghouse for donated food on its way from the food industry to churches and charity agencies that provide food aid to needy people. As fast as the agencies we served were drawing food from us, we were easily replacing that food with equal or better products. So we were genuinely at a loss as to what else we should be doing.
However, we began to suspect that there were some very widespread practices in the charity food distribution system that could be improved.
So we went back to the United Way with a request that they conduct or fund a thorough review of how the charity food system worked, with an emphasis on discovering how people in the charity food distribution network could work more efficiently and effectively. The result was a two year $264,000 Heart of West Michigan United Way grant to the food bank to enable us to contract with Michigan State University to conduct that research. We worked very closely with them, often doing parallel research in order to corroborate or test various findings, or pursuing our own lines of inquiry.
The research concluded that while we have five times the resources needed to end hunger, we could only address one-fifth of the problem. The research also suggested several ways that charity food distribution centers can close this gap, bringing more food to more people who need it, more effectively and efficiently. The research revealed that the gap between resources and the unmet need is a result of shortcomings in how these abundant resources are distributed.
To most easily grasp the significance of the historic problems of the charity food distribution system and the significance of the Waste Not Want Not improvements, it will be most helpful for you to visualize the ￼￼￼￼￼distribution system as a multi-sectioned pipeline. Our research examined each section of that pipeline to determine its carrying capacity. Could it move adequate food resources to meet the area’s need, or did it need to be enlarged or unclogged in some way?
For example, if the average family seeking food aid needed seven to 10 days worth of help, but the average agency was providing them with only three days worth of help, our research flagged that as a section of the pipeline that needed to be enlarged or unclogged.
The operative belief behind our work is that there is enough food available to charity agencies to end hunger, and that gravity will naturally draw that food toward the needy unless or until that flow is interrupted or constricted. What began as a mighty river can shrink to just a drop in the bucket. That is precisely what our research suggests has happened in community after community across the United States, and is why efforts to end hunger in those communities are failing to meet the need. Enlarge the pipeline or unclog it where needed, and the end of hunger in your locale can be brought to well within your reach.
About this book
This book outlines about a dozen very specific tools that you, your agency and your community can employ toward reaching a goal of adequately addressing your area’s hunger problem. You will know absolutely how to end hunger—not abstractly or by means that rely on forces, events or resources beyond your control.
In reading this book, you may feel that it criticizes your agency or some practice of your agency. If that happens, please take consolation in my discomfort on the same score. In 1984 I authored the first nationally circulated how-to handbook on how to run a food pantry. Much of what was in that book is what I now am now admonishing people to stop doing. Every time you wince, trust that I am squirming with you!
Also, take heart in the fact that not all food assistance agencies have to implement 100 percent of this book in order to bring ending hunger within reach. At the back of the book is a score sheet you can use to assess your practices with respect to the Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations. A perfect program will score 100. A less-fully-aligned agency will score less. It is possible to score as low as 5. All we need in order to bring ending hunger within reach is an average score of 70. So if your agency cannot fully undertake some of the Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations, don’t worry! Just be aware that not doing some of these things only means you should do some of the others a little more fully. Get your score up to 70, and we end hunger.
If there is value in this product, the thanks for it are due to many people and organizations whom I would like to acknowledge: My own board and staff, The Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Waste Not Want Not Project staff, Michigan State University, many other food bankers around the country who have tested these methods and have provided wonderful feedback and affirmation, and last but not least, the countless charity agency staff, volunteers and clients who have so patiently taught me so many things over the 20+ years I have been doing this work. Any errors or problems that may exist in this document I humbly claim as my own.
– John M. Arnold