Communities are often proud of their food shelves, and individuals and small foundations often feel good about making contributions to them. All of us have, at one time or another, donated cans of food during food drives, and many churches make giving to local food shelves an annual and routine priority. My home church, as an example, provides both money and volunteers to one of our local food shelves on a weekly basis.
It will probably surprise these donors and volunteers to know that there is considerable sentiment against food shelves among many food policy advocates and social justice organizations, primarily because food shelf operations mask larger social and economic problems. Most counties in the United States, for example, have a "cost of living" indicator that estimates the hourly wage necessary to lift a family of three above the threshold for poverty. In Carroll County, Arkansas, a worker needs to earn $13.37 an hour simply to keep out of poverty. As we know, few entry level or production jobs pay that much, especially in rural America, and food shelves are often relied on as an economic band aid for the problem of low-wages.
One interesting solution, offered by that unlikeliest source, was from the late William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley argued that surplus commodities such as rice, powdered milk, sugar, beans, etc., should be made available to all Americans--and without means testing. Simply put, anyone could walk into that natural distribution point for food, grocery stores, and walk out with an armload of free commodities. The statistical and economic data that accompanied the Buckley Model showed that his plan, even without means testing, would cost taxpayers less than the costs for operating food stamp and coupon programs, and through reductions in subsidy payments to farmers by stabilizing the market for production.
Buckley's idea never caught on for mostly political reasons. Substantial numbers of politicians and bureaucrats hated the idea of dismantling food stamp and farm subsidy programs, and about an equal number on the other side of the Bell Curve hated the idea of people getting something for nothing; they preferred the traditional path of spending two bucks to watch every buck spent. Interestingly enough, the National Association of Retail Grocers was for the idea because they would have received stocking and warehousing fees sufficient to cover any revenue they might incur through loss of sales.
The problem with Buckley's idea in the present time is that we lack sufficient surplus commodities to sustain any sort of regular, large scale distribution system. Yes, that's right: we have a critical shortage of food, both here in the United States, and throughout the world. If production was stopped today, through terrorism, by weather, or because of a critical shortage of petroleum inputs, we would run completely out of food in 71 days. People in the State of Iowa, that richest of commodities producers, are not exempt either since 85% of the food consumed by Iowan's today is imported across state lines.
Another criticism of food shelves is that the food distributed isn't healthy food, that it is heavily weighted with products rich in empty calories, i.e., sugar, carbohydrates, and so on. I know that food shelf managers work hard to provide clients with a balanced distribution, but when I ran a food shelf in Minneapolis many years ago, it was impossible to refuse donations from General Mills and Pillsbury, and we handed out more than a healthy ration of processed boxed cereals and pop tarts. Yet, healthy eating is a problem for all Americans and not just users of food shelves: four out of five things most Americans eat contain some form of processed corn. Why? Because corn is a relatively cheap additive and food processers make the most use of it that they can.
Some people are also concerned that food shelves create an unhealthy dependency among habitual users. Rather than improve their lot through better employment, by working more hours, or by giving up unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking, some food shelf users simply factor in a monthly donated food allotment as part of their annual "income." This is frustrating to personal responsibility advocates and food shelf workers alike, if not for the same reasons.
These points are not made as reasons to shut down our food shelves, or to suggest that people stop contributing money or hours to them. In fact, I hope you join me in thanking and honoring our hardworking food shelf volunteers for the important and necessary work that they perform.
What I hope we can agree to do, however, is to think more critically and strategically about food, food distribution, and community food security. While there is probably nothing we can do to stop subsidizing underpaid workers employed by large corporations, or about habitual and chronic abusers of support systems, we can look at alternative strategies that promote self-sufficiency, improve health, and enhance national security.
One strategy advocated for by a San Diego, California group, 'Food Not Lawns', encourages residents of residential properties to turn their lawns into small urban "farms", and then to mentor food shelf clients on the farm and teach them how to produce and store their own food. In exchange for labor, food shelf clients receive fresh, healthy food, gain a self-sufficiency tool, and feel much less obviously an object of charity.
Here in Berryville, the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has started a program called 'Growing the Community from the Ground Up.' Congregants took a rarely used play area behind the church and started a community garden. Production from the garden has helped gardeners become more economically self-sufficient, and the excess production will be donated to Loaves and Fishes, Berryville's Food Shelf. This fall, the First Christian Church plans a Harvest Festival to celebrate their effort, and to "give thanks to God for the goodness of His provision."
The FCC is one among hundreds of congregations around the country that have taken up the challenge to become more self-sufficient as a community, to create self-sufficiency opportunities for low and moderate income people in the larger community around them, and to demonstrate thier environmental and social justice values in measureable and practical ways.
In the best of all possible worlds, we will continue to support our emergency food shelves with money and other resources. But we will also see other area churches and civic organizations begin community gardens--and we will see local government make land at public housing facilities available for gardens. Even better, local foundations and individual philanthropists will expand their giving to include sustainable and local agricultural initiatives.