The Business of Food Banks

April 29, 2021

They're getting bigger and more prominent. That's not good.

Everybody, including me, loves food banks. I regularly contribute to my local one. They feed hungry people. What’s not to like, especially during the pandemic, which has created so much additional food insecurity?

Except that there are some aspects to the structure of food-based charity in America that are distinctly...unsettling.

As I have written before, food banks are not, and should not be seen as, a substitute for allowing people to buy what they need in regular grocery stores. What’s more disturbing, to me at least, is that food banks are becoming almost their own business – and a big one.

This superb article in the Guardian does a great job of laying out the landscape. It mentions the huge, executive-level salaries among the top ranks of the major food charities, and contrasts them with the staffs of local food banks, who are either volunteers or make barely above minimum wage, if that.

I already knew about the wage situation. I stopped contributing directly to Feeding America when I found out that their CEO at the time got paid more than $800,000 a year. But it turns out that my local food bank is in the Feeding America network. Oh well.

Even worse is the involvement of big food processors and retailers with food banks. Their executives sit on the boards of food charities, and their companies contribute cash and food to them. All well and good, except when you look at some of their motivations.

Walmart, for instance, contributes to a Feeding America program that helps people sign up for food stamps. That’s fine, except that there’s some self interest for Walmart here. According to an estimate cited in the Guardian article, some 4% of Walmart’s grocery revenue comes from customers using food stamps. Even worse is that some of those food stamp users are Walmart’s own employees.

“Food philanthropy is focused on mitigating rather than ending hunger, because it is connected to capitalism by the hip,” Raj Patel, author of “Stuffed and Starved,” told the Guardian. “There is so much money to be made in food aid through tax breaks, free publicity, salaried executives, electronic SNAP [food stamp] cards … Food banks are expanding rather than trying to put themselves out of business.”

I’ll probably go on giving money to my local food bank. But I really, really hope that as few of my dollars as possible go to benefit the Walton family.