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Why Non-Profit Thinking is Not Going to End Child Hunger in America

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Photo by Kokayi Nosakhere
When we talk about child hunger, we are talking about a lot of interlocking issues.  We are talking about psychology and how a citizen views himself or herself. We are talking about poverty-rate households. We are talking about food stamps and school feeding programs. We are talking about “forced” choices, not necessarily “bad” choices. We are talking about values, habits and behaviors.
There’s no way to talk about solutions without talking about money. I mean, what else are we talking about other than increasing access of poor people to financial resources?
Jon Van Hegel, the man who discovered food banking in the 1970s, argued forcefully that poverty causes hunger. If a person has to choose between shelter and food, shelter wins. Why? Because shelter provides the psychological comfort of feeling safe and you need to feel safe to sleep. The need to sleep comes before the need to eat.
In a TED Talk filmed earlier this year, American fundraising guru Dan Pollatta confirmed the idea that we need to rethink how we address poverty solutions in America. Charitable giving in the First World consistently falls below the amount needed to tackle social problems independently of government. Nor is it structured to inspire citizens to share their wealth at an appropriate level by tapping into the profit-motive.

From my experience, non-profits are great at producing government-style reports, not so great at reducing the need for their services.
Two years ago, my father helped initiate a paradigm-shift in my thinking by giving me a copy of Muhammad Yunus’s book, Creating A World Without Poverty. Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Prize, developed mirco-lending in Bangledesh and, like Pollatta, is a thought leader in the realm of anti-poverty work. Grameen Bank, which Yunus began, uses the profit-motive to eradicate poverty, not the charitable giving model.
The analysis of what is wrong with non-profit thinking smacks of common-sense.
Competition
The national charity networks are not set up to rival or challenge the commercial food industry. Similarly, the Red Cross is not built to ever replace insurance-run hospitals. Why would a grocery store want food banks to provide Americans a full month of “free food?” Wouldn’t that put Safeway, Cubs Foods and Super Wal-Mart out of business? Because the commercial food industry doesn’t want competition, a food pantry provides a person only 3-4 days worth of food – total. For the entire month.
Flaws in the Grant System
The “grant system” is flawed in two ways. First, it does not flood the non-profit world with enough money. British Petroleum, or BP, does not make billions of dollars available for “grants.” Just because they make a profit of billions of dollars doesn’t mean they give away billions of dollars to poor people. They give away a few hundred million. Now, of the $5.5 million BP passed out last year in Alaska, over 6,000 non-profits are fighting for a share of that $5.5 million. Bill Gates and other high-income Americans do the exact same thing. The grant system isn’t a replacement for pro-business capital investments.
Second, grants don’t fund salaries. It is one thing to be able to purchase food or warehouse equipment through a grant. How are you going to pay for someone to keep track of the food going in and out of the warehouse or drive the forklift? Doesn’t that take very smart human beings? Very smart human beings don’t volunteer 40 hours every week at a food bank. That leaves Grandma from the church and she doesn’t understand Excel spreadsheets.
Follow-Through
Americans may “think” about the poor, but they only really take action twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most food banks receive the bulk of their financial donations during this time. This is the only grant-free money they receive.  That means money with no strings attached. Where does that money go? Towards salaries and utilities. Why? Because grants don’t pay for accountants or the light bill.
Tax Shelters
A tax ID number doesn’t really help a business donate to your non-profit because businesses have alternative ways to find tax shelters other than donating to a food bank or food pantry–for example, to a universities, museum, or hospital.
Government Focus
The United States government is pro-business. The government is also broke, so attempting to get money out of them is hard given the current political climate, when every politician’s first target for cutting spending is non-defense discretionary spending.
What the Poor Deserve
Although Americans don’t really want to talk about it, an agreement exists across the board that poor people deserve to be poor. The philosophy is that poverty is the result of poor choices, not “forced” choices. If you are poor, no matter what the cause, you deserve it. If poverty is the result of “bad choices” and not “forced choices” it makes it that much harder for non-profits to attract American’s attention beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A Misunderstanding of Hunger
Thanks to the horrific images of children during the Ethiopian famine of the 80s, Americans believe that a child has to be at death’s door before pity needs to be shown. In America, child “hunger” looks like an obese child eating a McDonald’s Dollar Menu hamburger or drinking a $.99 Arizona Ice Tea. This visually goes against what Americans, the poor included, agree with as “hunger” or “malnutrition.” Both terms are hard to explain in news cycle sound bites.
Against these odds, without radical intervention, a child born into an American poverty-rate household doesn’t have a fighting chance. Such a train wreck is easy to predict. The question is: what does that “radical intervention” look like?
Unfortunately, a silver bullet doesn’t exist. We are talking about human beings, not static systems. The dynamic of the human psyche is always wreaking havoc with our neat, very mathematical economic theories. Motives resist disciplined, linear thinking.
The solution doesn’t look like Yunus’ Grameen Bank scaled up to the level of the International Monetary Fund. In fact, Yunus’ ideas are failing in parts of the world not disciplined by his understanding of poor people’s psychology, due to that pesky profit motive.  Without sufficient relationship structures designed to assist those brand new to credit on how to manage their new found wealth, the Grameen Bank model crashes.
Nor do we have enough Pallotta-level geniuses to distribute to the 205 food banks located in 50 states. And where is the money supposed to come from anyway? It’s not like the need for food banking services exists in middle-income neighborhoods.  Detroit is dealing with 50% unemployment levels. Among other things.
What is needed is American creativity: a mixed bag of government stimulus, capitalistic motivational techniques and a double dose of compassion. Here is what I suggest:

  1. We need a Poor People’s Bill of Rights, or something along those lines.  We need to convene a national forum on American poverty that seriously looks at the reasons Americans are poor, see the Great Recession. We need clear public policy that gets to the root of the issues facilitating poverty. For example, homelessness and service-based new jobs instead of manufacturing jobs.
  2. We need to reform banking policies. Major national chains are implementing solutions that create more problems, like pre-paid payroll cards.
  3. We look at the minimum wage and increase it modestly, so as not to hurt small business persons, yet, make it feasible for single-parent households to make it.
  4.  We look at the expansion of urban economic institutes, which are able to re-educate former drug dealers and the underclass on what entrepreneurship really looks like.

Again, no silver bullet exists. However, a combination of ideas can produce a working solution.