Welcome to Hunger Inc.
There are times when I feel like I am an insignificant toiler in a great and serious national bureaucracy – the business of hunger in America.
Imagine our prospectus to potential investors:
Ladies and Gentlemen, business has been outstanding since the Great Boom of 2009, with emergency food organizations bringing in record amounts of money and building ever more impressive infrastructures ready to take the art and science of hunger relief into the 22nd Century. We have diversified into new business areas, and got our brand message and talking points over to lawmakers and the public through advocacy.
So, my fellow Americans, you might be for hunger or against it, but you can’t deny that as a vibrant concern, we are here to stay. Thank you and please give generously.
Okay, so I am getting a little carried away, but maybe that’s because this is the last moment to think for a second before we enter into that slalom run down to ‘The Holidays.’
This is the gravy season for emergency hunger organizations when genuine loving concern for one’s fellow man, paired with a side order of good old-fashioned guilt allows us to make a sizeable chunk of our operating nut for the coming year.
Before we board this seasonal gravy (and turkey) train once more, I thought it would be good for us to ask ourselves a hard question. We say we want to shorten the line and end hunger in America. That is a laudable goal, but how exactly are we going to do it? What is our ‘Theory of Change’ (the detailed measurable steps contained in a logic model) that are going to take us from here to there.
It’s at this stage in the conversation that Mr. Spock might begin to find our logic a little “…illogical, Captain.” We might say that the problem can be ‘solved’ by protecting and strengthening the federal safety net; finding more money for advocacy to engage the public in ‘the fight’; generating way more TEFAP; providing generous funding for a strong food bank network. Oh, yes, and Farm Bill, Farm Bill, Farm Bill.
All great things, but nowhere near a theory of change. In reality they are far closer to a ‘Theory of Stasis.’
Logic models and theories of change are something we find easier to deal with on a small-scale programmatic level where we have more control over the environment we are operating in. (Here is a resource from the Kellogg Foundation on applying Theory of Change to your mission).
Years ago, a local foundation provided me with a handy flow chart on which I had to chart how my program would lead to positive changes in client behavior. (Over time, I came to refer to this flow chart as the ‘Human Sausage Machine’ – clients and food were stuffed in at one end and changed humans miraculously popped out of the other end). We were veritable Willy Wonkas of nutrition with our INCREDIBLE BEHAVIOR-CHANGING MACnCHEESE!!
I must confess that the community kitchen I ran at that time had to make a few ‘creative leaps’ when demonstrating how we would actually change behavior. I would resort to my earnest protestations that children can’t learn if they haven’t had breakfast, or that people can’t look for jobs if they are hungry. All absolutely true, but the other truth was that we were not in the behavior change business. We were in the emergency hash slinging business, a subdivision of the ‘maintenance of things as they are’ business and that we should be funded because there was plenty of demand for those services.
Fast forward to the present day and I have to wonder whether we don’t have that same problem on a national level? We are stuck in the maintenance business rather than the transformational business. And how much fun is that?
Those of us working in the area of food insecurity have real problems articulating a persuasive theory of significant, sustainable change. We can talk convincingly of all the things that need to be done, but not how all this busyness will come together to actually change the situation. We have great theories for increasing the size of the band aid we are applying to the patient, but no clear idea about how to cure the patient. This is not a criticism of Feeding America or any other group. I think all national hunger-related organizations have the same challenge.
Can you end food insecurity in America by doing more of what we are doing? After 11 years in the hunger sphere, I can put my hand on my heart and give a hearty “No!”
From my perspective, I think one problem is that we have been stuck looking at too narrow an area – that of food insecurity. This has been a small enough area for us to operate proficiently and to demonstrate unique excellence in our nonprofit services, but it is not large enough to actually solve the problem that we are trying to deal with. When challenged about this, we tend to retract like a poked sea slug, saying that anything else is ‘too complex and we just have to stick to doing what we know.’
To my mind, this is a big mistake. We need to expand and take the helicopter up higher, not lower.
We are stuck dealing with complex health and social problems in an overly simplistic fashion. It has created a culture of food banking as a continuous shift in an ER ward, where we’re all too busy with the suffering and drama of the moment to give enough thought to how we can do anything more than get through. No time to think! Lives are in the balance!
Until recently we were talking pounds of food per person in poverty as the solution to ending hunger, now the metric has shifted to numbers of meals provided (even if those meals are a theoretical construct, made up of pounds of soda, candy or whatever the total ‘food’ poundage of a food bank might be). These metrics are too crude to really help us move up from our current level of support and national focus.
We got into using the term ‘Food security’ because hunger was too reductive an explanation for what we were dealing with (useful for fundraising, but not able to explain the broad need for food assistance). Yet food security has become it’s own little prison, constricting our room for bold maneuver.
Which brings me back to asking what is our ‘Theory of Change’, both with individuals, communities and with the nation as a whole? In our little gnat bite of a California county are piecing together our own local ‘theory of change’ which I will share in another post, but to come up with a workable ‘theory’ on a national level we need a whole new set of relationships and collaborations between hunger, health, nutrition, anti-poverty, job creation and community development organizations nationwide.
This partnership would form a continuum of help to keep people healthy and connected to building and maintaining vibrant communities. Food insecurity is really only one part of a longer engagement and relationship with people
It is clear that none of this can be achieved by a single organization or by a purely top-down approach. It is also clear – to me at least – that these things cannot be achieved purely within a sphere of operations labeled ‘hunger relief.’ No matter how many millions we collect it will still always be a ‘sop for the needy’ – not enough to actually deal with the issue.
However, if we were to pivot to focusing on the issue as one of public health where we were going to commit to marshaling our efforts and those of our 64,000 member agencies to raise the baseline health of Americans in the simplest and most cost effective way possible – by raising the standard of their nutrition, it would be a historic game changer.
It would have the power to bring in the Department of Health and Human Services as an additional funding partner. (I know we came to the dance with the USDA, but my feet are getting tired and so are theirs, I imagine, as they’ve been asked to do impossible limbo dances beyond their original dance card).
To make such a pivot at the national Federal agency level requires us to get our collaborative shit together with a broad coalition of national charities, prepared to use nutritional literacy and health as a pump-primer for other next stage activities, such as community development and job creation.
We know what we do is providing the most basic need possible, but we are leaving the potential for huge positive change in people’s lives on the table walking away from leveraging that basic food need, and the access it affords into people’s lives, to help them get ahead.
We need to reframe the issue from the negative one of charity for ‘the needy’ to a positive engagement with people to ensure long-lasting nutritional health is seen as a vital and attainable public health goal.
Lack of adequate healthy food and the skills to use it need to be presented as issues of unacceptable public health and should be addressed, treated and funded in that fashion. The food bank and emergency food network remains the sleeping giant of the public health world. We can be the engine of the largest improvement in health since indoor plumbing.
To do this we need to have the ability to demonstrate the efficacy of our nutritional and educational interventions using acceptable public health criteria. Evaluation is the key to opening the door to a new approach and new funding from the Feds, from health insurers and from donors who want to see a major long-term return on their social investment.
For me, this represents the broad strokes true ‘theory of change’ that will enable us to move people from hunger to health.
I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming ‘Closing the Hunger Gap’ conference in Tucson on Sept 15. If you weren’t planning on coming, maybe you should. This is not a national learning conference put on by a national body, but a grass roots effort staged by a single food bank, determined to do what it can to provide a forum for a range of types of organizations to come together how to move forward this vital work on both a local and national level.