The Lines That Never End

A very interesting article in the Washington Post by Mark Winne, the former director of Connecticut's Hartford Food System and a 25-year veteran of food bank programs. In it he explains how he came to recognize something awful about food handout programs: they don't work. The more the volunteers collect, the more they give away, the more demand increases. The lines never end.

We did our job well, and everything grew: Over 25 years, the food bank leapfrogged five times from warehouse to ever-vaster warehouse, finally landing in a state-of-the-art facility that's the equal of most commercial food distribution centers in the country. The volunteers multiplied to 3,000 because the donations of food, much of it unfit for human consumption, required many hands for sorting and discarding. The number of food distribution sites skyrocketed from five in 1982 to 360 today.

But in spite of all the outward signs of progress, more than 275,000 Connecticut residents — slightly less than 8.6 percent of the state's residents — remain hungry or what we call "food insecure." The Department of Agriculture puts 11 percent of the U.S. population in this category. (The department also provides state-by-state breakdowns.)

The overall futility of the effort became evident to me one summer day in 2003 when I observed a food bank truck pull up to a low-income housing project in Hartford. The residents had known when and where the truck would arrive, and they were already lined up at the edge of the parking lot to receive handouts. Staff members and volunteers set up folding tables and proceeded to stack them with produce, boxed cereal and other food items. People stood quietly in line until it was their turn to receive a bag of pre-selected food.

No one made any attempt to determine whether the recipients actually needed the food, nor to encourage the recipients to seek other forms of assistance, such as food stamps. The food distribution was an unequivocal act of faith based on generally accepted knowledge that this was a known area of need. The recipients seemed reasonably grateful, but the staff members and volunteers seemed even happier, having been fortified by the belief that their act of benevolence was at least mildly appreciated.

As word spread, the lines got longer until finally the truck was empty. The following week, it returned at the same time, and once again the people were waiting. Only this time there were more of them. It may have been that a donor-recipient co-dependency had developed. Both parties were trapped in an ever-expanding web of immediate gratification that offered the recipients no long-term hope of eventually achieving independence and self-reliance. As the food bank's director told me later, "The more you provide, the more demand there is."

Winne calls it a co-dependency between the people receiving the handouts and those providing the food. The volunteers want to feel goos about themselves and so they volunteer. The food bank programs become a self-sustaining program rather than a means to an end. There is no end in sight. Because the self-sustaining nature of the programs distracts from real solutions.

Food banks are a dominant institution in this country, and they assert their power at the local and state levels by commanding the attention of people of good will who want to address hunger. Their ability to attract volunteers and to raise money approaches that of major hospitals and universities. While none of this is inherently wrong, it does distract the public and policymakers from the task of harnessing the political will needed to end hunger in the United States.

The risk is that the multibillion-dollar system of food banking has become such a pervasive force in the anti-hunger world, and so tied to its donors and its volunteers, that it cannot step back and ask if this is the best way to end hunger, food insecurity and their root cause, poverty.

Winne's solutions are misguided, I think, because he's essentially calling for an even bigger self-sustaining handout – this time run by the government. Nevertheless, he is correct that the entire thrust of programs like these fail to address the real causes of the problem. Yet handing out more only leads to demand for still more, as Winne notices. What he appears not to see is that his "solutions" would simply multiply the lines yet again. Only this time it would be the government being asked to provide more and more, not volunteers.

It's interesting that Winne noticed the essential problem with handouts without following that insight all the way to the logical conclusion. That old, shopworn adage applies here: if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, if you teach him to fish he eats for a lifetime. The way up and out of poverty is education and opportunity, not another handout. Because the lines just never end if you're giving it all away. "The more you provide, the more demand there is." That quote from the unnamed food bank director says it all.

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5 Responses to The Lines That Never End

  1. NortonPete says:

    I think your “give a man a fish… ” adage is spot on. I believe you can divide the entire population up into a few camps that have nothing to do with poverty.

    There are those who will line up for something free regardless of their need.

    There are “do gooders” that will toil as long as they receive gratification. They can walk away feeling good about themselves, ( I’ve been there myself ).

    I worked for a major corporation that decided to bring in a popcorn vendor and give out free popcorn to the employees. Everyone lined up and waited patiently in line. I didn’t because I was actually doing some real work at the time. I watched as everyone returned to their cubicles, most just sampled a bit of popcorn and then threw it out. I asked why they waited in line and the most common answer was that they didn’t really want the popcorn but it was free so they were compelled to take it.

  2. K T Cat says:

    I have to argue with your analysis. There is no indication that the demand actually exists. These trucks are parking and handing out dollar bills. Any money I don’t have to spend on food is money I can spend somewhere else. If I knew someone was going to park in my neighborhood and hand out food, I’d take it if for no other reason than I wouldn’t have to go to the store. That savings in time alone would be worth it.

  3. Gaius says:

    I have no doubt that there are people who take advantage of the free food even though they do not actually need it.

  4. And it all happened because some dogooder kid named Trevor started handing out sandwiches to the homeless. These things started because of the perception of a flood of homeless. They were supposed to be stopgap until a better solution was found.

    Like all Liberal feelgood solutions they don’t work and turn into self perpetuating bureaucracies.

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