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Reporting on the real views of the 'armies of compassion'

ASK THIS | February 12, 2005

News organizations should directly ask the heads of private charities, including those that are faith-based, what they think are the solutions to hunger and poverty in America. (Second in a series)

By Joel Berg


Q.  Does the growing poverty and hunger in America indicate that President Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative is failing?  Has the Administration used the relatively small funding for this initiative to mask broader cuts in anti-poverty programs such as his recent proposal to cut $1.1 billion (over ten years) in food stamps funding?  


Q. Do the “armies of compassion” – the people who actually run faith-based food pantries and soup kitchens – believe that they should be nation’s first line of defense against hunger, or do they believe that the government should take more of a leadership role in strengthening the safety net and increasing wages? 


Q. How many people are fed by such charities – and how much food is provided by them – compared to the number of people fed by federal programs such as food stamps, WIC, and school meals?  Do the news media give the false impression that these programs are more effective or economical than governmental programs?  Do food distribution charities themselves sometimes give the false impression they are more effective than government in order to increase donations to them? 


Q. How much money does the government spend giving food to such charitable programs and providing tax breaks to private donors to such programs? Would it be more cost-effective for government to simply expand existing federal nutrition assistance programs?



Over the last few decades, under-funded private charities have increasingly been asked to handle many responsibilities performed by government, a trend that has been bolstered by President Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiative.  Many members of the “armies of compassion” themselves – the people who actually run faith-based food pantries and soup kitchens – believe it is major mistake to replace a large-scale government safety net with under-funded private charity.  


Given that President Bush frequently cites hunger as one of the social ills he wants addressed by his Faith-Based and Community Initiative, this is a good issue upon which to assess whether the Bush initiative is working.  As a direct result of the increasing poverty, hunger, and food insecurity – as well as cutbacks in the social service safety net and the exhortations by President Bush and others – America is increasingly relying upon charitable food pantries and soup kitchens to feed low-income Americans. 


In 2001, according to America’s Second Harvest (the national network of food banks and food rescue organizations that supplies food to such  kitchens and pantries), these agencies collectively fed more than 23 million low-income Americans, including more than five million children and nine million seniors.  For the first time, the number of Americans utilizing private pantries and kitchens surpassed the number of Americans utilizing government food stamps. (Click here for that report.) 


Annual reports from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as well as reports from local feeding organization nationwide, indicate that the numbers have soared upwards since then, but we won’t know the exact figures until America’s Second Harvest releases its updated national study in the Fall of 2005.


Pantries and kitchens – most of which are faith-based – are increasingly having trouble meeting the growing demand. For example, in New York City, even before September 11, more than 1.7 million New Yorkers lived below the federal poverty line (which is a little more than $15,000 for a family of three), and more than one million were forced to utilize charitable pantries and kitchens.


According to the most comprehensive annual survey of local hunger (conducted by my organization, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger), the number of people fed at the city’s pantries and kitchens rose by 48 percent from 2000 to 2003. That number rose an additional 9 percent from 2003 to 2004, indicating that any economic recovery has yet to significantly aid the lowest-income New Yorkers. Fully 81 percent of the city’s pantries and kitchens said they faced at least some increased demand for food in 2004, with 52 percent saying the demand had increased "greatly."


The number of people being fed by such agencies is now at record levels. Yet, in the last year, only 22 percent of the agencies obtained more food and funding, only 15 percent hired more staff, and only 27 percent obtained more volunteers. In fact, more than twice as many agencies faced cuts in food and money as obtained increases. This “food distribution resources gap” forced a record 48 agencies to shut down entirely. Of the agencies that were able to stay in business, limited resources forced more than half (53 percent) to ration their food by either turning away hungry New Yorkers, reducing portion sizes, and/or cutting hours of operation – a 20 percent increase since 2002 in the number of agencies forced to ration food. (See NYCCAH's 2004 and 2003 Annual Hunger Surveys at 


While most of these agencies nationwide were founded in the 1980s by volunteers who thought they would be temporary, today there are more than 30,000 such programs across the country, often run by the very same volunteers who started them. In New York City, the number of these charities rose from about 30 in 1980 to more than 1,200 today.

This past Thanksgiving and Christmas, as we do yearly, the nation collectively celebrated these programs as proof of our goodwill and generosity. While the country generally hears little about hunger throughout the year, during the holiday season we were blanketed with Norman Rockwell-like media images of celebrities, political leaders, and average citizens volunteering to feed "the needy."  

Yet, as in the case of the original bucket brigades that brought citizens together but failed to put out fires, these modern bucket brigades – as heartwarming as they are – are mostly failing.  It is no wonder then that the people who run them say it is far more important for elected officials to enact concrete governmental policies to reduce hunger and poverty than to aid charities, according to a survey conducted in the summer of 2004 by my organization, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. 


Additional experts who can be contacted by the press:


Edward M. Cooney, Executive Director, Congressional Hunger Center

(202) 547-7022, ext. 14


Doug O'Brien, Vice President of Public Policy and Research

America’s Second Harvest

(312) 263-2303, ext. 158


Margy Waller,Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution
on Urban and Metropolitan Policy
(202) 797-6466

Conference of Mayors Web site
U.S. cities expect poverty to increase in 2005

Report on a 2004 survey by Joel Berg's group
NYCCAH Web site

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