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Fighting Food Insecurity

Author, Anti-Hunger Advocate Andy Fisher Sheds Light on Food Insecurity and its Ties to our Industrial Food System, Politics

Why is the problem of chronic hunger and food insecurity getting worse in the world’s top superpower? Forty-three million people receive SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and 13 percent of the U.S. population fit USDA’s definition of “food insecure.” Despite an army of well-intentioned volunteers working with 60,000 emergency food sites supplied by more than 200 food banks, the anti-hunger sector has not been able to stem the tide of hunger. In fact, as Andy Fisher points out in his new book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, little that they do alleviates the root causes of the problem.
Fisher is best known for his roles developing the concept of community food security and building the food movement. In 1994 he co-founded the Community Food Security Coalition, a national alliance of groups focused on improving food access and strengthening local food systems. He served as the organization’s executive director for 17 years, until 2011. CFSC brought together people from disparate parts of the food system, such as sustainable agriculture, anti-hunger, community gardening and farmers’ markets, which had not been in the same room before, and gave them opportunities to collaborate as partners and create projects that benefit multiple interests. Fisher was instrumental in gaining passage of federal legislation such as Community Food Projects and the Farm to School grant program. He has worked on a wide variety of food system projects and topics, including food policy councils, healthy corner stores, coalition building and farm to cafeteria. Since leaving CFSC, he has taught at various universities in Oregon, most recently as adjunct faculty member of the public health department at Portland State University, and served as interim executive director at Portland Fruit Tree Project.
Fisher became interested in domestic food issues as a grad student in Urban Planning and Latin American Studies at UCLA. When Los Angeles exploded following the acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King, he and a handful of fellow grad students felt an urgency to deal with what was going on in their own backyard. “The food system was not working for people in South Central Los Angeles. People were burning grocery stores, and there weren’t many supermarkets there,” he said. Fisher went on to conduct a yearlong inquiry into the problems of food access, health and hunger in one South Central neighborhood and explore possible solutions. The report gained attention as one of the first community food assessments in the country.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

ACRES U.S.A. Food pantries and soup kitchens were originally intended as sources of food for emergencies, but millions of Americans regularly depend on them. Food pantries have popped up in so many neighborhoods, in rural areas and even at colleges. What went wrong in our country to make this the new normal?

ANDY FISHER: That’s a wonderful question. The first food bank — a place that aggregated food from retailers and processors in a warehouse — opened in Phoenix in the 1960s. Into the 1970s only a handful of food banks existed across the country. A nascent alliance called Second Harvest coordinated those efforts. Come 1981, after Reagan took office, the country went into a deep recession. A lot of manufacturing jobs went south or to Japan. The steel industry is a prime example of an industry where many jobs left the country. Many people became unemployed. During that period labor unions, churches and other groups started creating food pantries as a way to feed people on an emergency basis. Nobody expected it to last forever. But once the ball got rolling, food corporations realized it was a morally preferable way to dispose of their surplus food. For volunteers, it was a wonderful way to feel good. People continued to need the food. The emergency food system became very convenient for the federal government because it demonstrated that the private sector was addressing this issue and suggested that we didn’t need ‘big government’ to do it. Over time it became institutionalized. I started working on these issues in the early- to mid-1990s. For the first 10 years I was involved, food bankers would frequently claim that they were trying to put themselves out of business. Around a decade ago, I stopped hearing that on a regular basis. Part of what accelerated the process of making the emergency food system a permanent part of the landscape was America’s Second Harvest, the food banking trade association. Around 2006, Second Harvest hired Vicki Escarra, formerly Delta’s chief marketing officer, as its CEO. She led a rebranding of the organization as Feeding America and brought in high-level advertising PR folks. They ramped up their fundraising from corporate America and starting engaging in cause marketing. The relationships between the food banks and corporations really took off.

ACRES U.S.A. You call fighting hunger a national pastime. That sounds like something that Americans could be proud of. What makes you critical of the way we conduct this activity? Continue Reading →