Ending Hunger: Charity, Justice, and the Public Policy Challenge

The following post, written by The Rev. Robert A. Franek, is a part of Politicus Policy Discussion, in which writers draw connections between real lives and public policy.

The call to feed the hungry is rooted in scripture. Israel is given the command to leave grain in the fields for others to glean. Jesus repeatedly calls for and models banquet hospitality for the poor and vulnerable. It seems such an easy thing feeding the hungry. Collective compassion and the recognition of the human dignity of each person demands it. Yet it remains a perennial challenge that is fraught with controversy in the policy arena.

Faith communities, non-profits, and businesses are good at charity work. Food drives are common place in nearly every community. And increasingly backpacks with snacks and meals for children are being packed by more and more groups to meet the immediate need of hungry children.

Whether in the form of food pantries or direct relief following domestic and international disasters access to food through these channels remains important. The need to fill pantry shelves, kids’ backpacks, and disaster relief delivery vehicles is ongoing and needs more attention than typical seasonal emphasis provides.

As we go about this charity work we are also called to ask questions of justice. These questions move beyond a direct response to a presenting need and examine the systems and structures that, intentionally or not, keep people from being able to have access to and afford healthy food for themselves and their families.

Bread for the World was the first organization that introduced me to a policy based approach to ending hunger across this country and throughout the world. Their fundamental question when evaluating a particular piece of legislation is: how does this affect a hungry person? Or how would this policy look from the perspective of a hungry person?

One of the most compelling realities that ignited a passion in me for policy work is the power for good legislation can have on a large number of people. Knowing that the impact of one piece of legislation can have a greater positive effect than all the charities in the country combined sparked my interest. But the call to work for justice and dismantle systems of oppression, which is rooted in scripture and baptismal vocation, is the drive that keeps me going.

Feeding the hungry is about more than collecting canned goods. It’s about policies that affect the price of food. It’s about living wages and access to grocery stores. It’s about healthcare and food preparation.

Consider a trip through a typical grocery store. Why is the healthy food found on the store’s perimeter namely fresh produce and meat much more expensive than the highly processed food in the store’s center aisles? The simple answer is subsidies. Analyzing these policies from the perspective of a hungry person is part of what it means to feed the hungry.

When low income families are forced to rely on cheap processed foods high in sugar the risk for health problems greatly increases, and thus the demand on our sick-care system, the need for medicine, and possibly affecting their ability to work. Even tending to these realities can be a challenge given work, transportation, and insurance realities.

And before one enters a grocery store, there has to be one to in the neighborhood. Food deserts are a serious problem in many low income neighborhoods, thus making it a greater challenge to get fresh food. And with access comes the need for understanding diet and nutrition as well as various preparation and storage methods for different types of food.

While SNAP funding and tax policy remain essential elements in the fight against hunger, there are numerous other areas that require our collective attention. This collective action will also move us beyond a transactional model that keeps the hungry at arms length as we move to an accompaniment model listening to and learning from those who experience hunger on a regular basis and giving them voice in the halls of legislative power.

The call to feed the hungry extends beyond the charity work of collecting goods for the local pantry. Feeding the hungry is a matter of public policy. This requires a careful examination of the intersectionality of legislation on everything from wages and employment, to the farm bill, to local zoning and planning for access to markets. It requires attention to diet and nutrition and helping people know how to prepare meals.

While many faith communities, non-profits, and business find common cause in collecting food for pantry shelves, this is only one part of addressing a complex problem. We all need to work together on various policy measures that seek the welfare of the hungry poor and establish justice for all.

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