Hunger is Not an Issue of Charity

My Grandma used to say, “first we eat, then we do everything else.” Food sustains our life; it brings us closer and creates common ground. But it is also a central component of social justice. Here in our prosperous state of California, the land of tech innovation, agriculture, and avocado toast, everyone should have access to fresh and nutritious food.

Yet, millions of Californians struggle with food access. And a harrowing number of those are older people –– who are aging into poverty, unsure where their next meal will come from. Food justice advocates have long been sounding the horn that the safety net is not working for everyone. Structural inequities and widening gaps in food distribution systems adversely impact older adults of color in particular, as Black and Latinx Americans experience the highest rates of food insecurity.

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare existing wealth and health disparities and magnified our nation’s long-standing food crisis.

We’ve all seen the jarring images of cars lined up for blocks outside food banks. Many of our communities’ elders are having to leave their homes — risking their health — to obtain basic sustenance. And a significant number are accessing food service for the first time as food banks are reporting a 73% increase over last year, and applications to CalFresh — California’s name for the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP)— have risen 140%. Despite this sharp increase in demand, 60% of food banks are experiencing reduced inventory because of the shutdown of so much of our economy.

While the primary conversation around hunger and food access has long centered on families and children, we must too accelerate our efforts to provide for our elders, whose plight not only gets limited attention and funding, but is often obscured by isolation, personal pride, and ageism. In fact, prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of older adults eligible for CalFresh were not participating in the program; a mere 19% had enrolled as of 2019.

This food crisis is unprecedented, extraordinary, and expanding.

In April, Governor Gavin Newsom announced ambitious initiatives to combat food insecurity among CalFresh recipients, children receiving free or reduced school lunches, and older people. As part of the “Great Plates Delivered” program, the state is partnering with restaurants to deliver daily meals to elders in need. (At the time of writing, the City of San Francisco has launched this program, while many other local municipalities are still in the planning stages of this effort; continued program funding is uncertain.) The Farm to Family program was also scaled up, allowing farmers to donate excess produce to food banks.

In a news cycle filled with dread and fear, this was heartening. Still, this effort alone will not solve a deep-rooted, complex, and multi-sector problem. Hunger, poverty, and disease are interlinked, and tens of thousands of isolated elders across our region will continue to quietly go hungry as the safety net overloads and social and economic costs are passed on to society.

Responsibility for ensuring that our community members have access to healthy foods is shared by us all—and government, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, businesses, and volunteers have been working overtime to curb food insecurity.

Philanthropy has also made meaningful contributions, and many of us have launched rapid response funds to address the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. At Metta Fund, we redirected grantmaking funds to address the immediate food needs faced by older adults. Yet, in the words of Jacques Diouf, “hunger is not an issue of charity, but an issue of justice.” A multisector approach to solving food insecurity—and advancing equity—is needed, one which advocates for sweeping policy changes and supports investments in infrastructure as well as direct service. It is here that philanthropy can play a more significant role: to collectively confront food insecurity and the underlying, systemic issues that perpetuate it. Funders can both advocate to increase minimum SNAP benefit levels and to scale up access to CalFresh for older adults by providing direct service and outreach grants. For example, we can fund efforts focused on expanding our existing infrastructure, on educating policy makers on the importance of CalFresh, and partnering with grassroots and faith-based organizations, health centers, and senior centers to counsel elders on CalFresh benefits.

We have an opportunity now to address immediate as well as long-term, systemic needs to improve food security, reduce health disparities, and address gaps in programming. Food security is critical to ensuring the health of our communities, to maintaining our economic viability, and to preserving our fundamental human rights.  Funding and policy change opportunities are at our doorstep. Let’s fire from all cylinders.

Janet Y. Spears, Chief Executive Officer