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Lifetime supply

America’s massive food banking system has a vested interest in keeping people dependent on regular handouts

An employee at the Connecticut Food Bank rolls out donated bread into the warehouse. Aaron Flaum / Record-Journal / AP

Lifetime supply
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RICH SCHAUS SMILED PROUDLY as he led the official visitor from the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma through the Gospel Rescue Mission’s kitchens. The biennial inspection had gone well. He was confident the homeless shelter and food pantry in Muskogee, Okla., met basic health codes and was fulfilling its mission—components key to ensuring the ministry could keep receiving food from the regional center.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Schaus, the Gospel Rescue Mission’s executive director, told the inspector about a few changes he’d made to the mission’s program. The inspector listened intently as Schaus described a new assessment sheet volunteers used with clients to encourage them to take steps to change their lives—this, instead of just handing them a box of food and sending them on their way.

Schaus showed the inspector a few examples of what the mission asked clients to do—simple things like attending a literacy class or participating in a work training program.

“I was excited about it. I thought he would be rejoicing,” Schaus recalled. “I thought they were going to be excited about how we were really helping folks.”

But the inspector wasn’t even smiling. His reaction took Schaus completely by surprise. “I could tell pretty quickly that I’d said something wrong.”

Rich Schaus stands in the Gospel Rescue Mission food pantry.

Rich Schaus stands in the Gospel Rescue Mission food pantry. Photo by Jeremy Scott/Genesis

“I’ll have to talk to my supervisor about this,” the inspector said. Then he stood abruptly and walked out of the building. Within a week, he called and told Schaus the Gospel Rescue Mission wasn’t allowed to require anything from its clients. Schaus had a difficult choice to make: Give up the changes designed to encourage clients to better their lives or forfeit the steady supply of discounted food from the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma—food the mission depended on.

Handing out food is big business. Last year, Feeding America topped Forbes’ list of America’s largest charities, with $4.36 billion in revenue. And the organization proudly touts staggering numbers. Its 2023 annual report highlighted its role in providing 5.3 billion meals through its network of food banks and pantries.

But the millions of pounds of food distributed to local ministries and their hungry clients come with strings—a list of rules and regulations that make it difficult for ministries to help people in long-term, life-changing ways. The rules are designed to protect those seeking help, but in reality they mostly help ensure food banks never run out of clients. Ministry leaders who push back risk excommunication from the food banking system and losing access to the nation’s largest source of donated food.

For example, the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma serves 24 counties in the Sooner State. In 2021, it provided 32.7 million pounds of food to 700 partner organizations, including the Gospel Rescue Mission. It’s one of more than 200 food banks in the Feeding America network that together supply more than 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.

People volunteer at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in September, when Feeding America hosted Hunger Action Day.

People volunteer at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in September, when Feeding America hosted Hunger Action Day. Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Feeding America

Food banking on today’s massive scale is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the late 1960s, local churches and charities operated pantries and soup kitchens that relied on local donations stacked in church basements. Then, in 1967, retired Arizona businessman and Phoenix soup kitchen volunteer Joseph Hegel began collecting food donations that would otherwise have gone to waste and stored and distributed them from a large warehouse—creating the first food bank. Other cities soon adopted the model, and food banking programs popped up around the nation thanks to a 1976 federal grant.

Feeding America, then known as America’s Second Harvest, was founded three years later. It began to unite the scattered array of food banks and distribution efforts, eventually growing into the largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Today, Feeding America enjoys a kind of “monopoly” on the food banking system, said Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies poverty and the effects of federal welfare programs. Feeding America food banks receive millions in federal funding through the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. The charity also has memorandums of understanding with food manufacturers like General Mills and nationwide grocery store chains such as Walmart and Target. They’re not official contracts since Feeding America isn’t paying the companies for the food, but the memorandums function like exclusive agreements. Independent food ministries typically can’t get donations from grocery chains that partner with Feeding America.

It is certainly helpful to have this kind of infrastructure in place that helps with the distribution of food. But there are downsides to that as well.

It’s an efficient model. The regional food banks that ­contract with Feeding America don’t have to build their own rapport with large corporations. Small food pantries struggling to get consistent donations can order staples from their regional food bank for pennies on the dollar. Fresh food and other perishable goods are often delivered to local ministries for free. “It is certainly helpful to have this kind of infrastructure in place that helps with the distribution of food,” said Rachidi. “But there are downsides to that as well.”

Local food ministries I talked to across the country shared story after story about how receiving food from a food bank affiliated with Feeding America restricts the kind of help they can offer clients. They told me that’s because the kind of help Feeding America champions, namely, giving away billions of meals while asking nothing in return, isn’t the kind of help most people who show up at local food pantries actually need. A box of free food may sustain someone from one day to the next, but it’s no substitute for the deep relationships and long-term change that enable a person to flourish.

People volunteer at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in September, when Feeding America hosted Hunger Action Day.

People volunteer at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in September, when Feeding America hosted Hunger Action Day. Monica Schipper/Getty Images for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank

RICH SCHAUS’ OFFICE at Muskogee’s Gospel Rescue Mission is sparsely furnished except for large black-and-white photographs that reflect his love of history and the people who’ve inspired him. It’s an imposing collection of portraits: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, George S. Patton, and his favorite, Teddy Roosevelt. But history is replete with well-intentioned people hurting those they are trying to help, Schaus pointed out, and the food banking system is no exception.

When he took over as executive director here in 2015, he quickly realized things needed to change. The homeless shelter and food pantry functioned as what he called the “community flophouse.”

Once a month, staff and volunteers handed out boxes of food to clients who drove or walked through a line in front of the mission. Often they saw the same people, month after month. But it was easy, and it felt good. “I’d done what I felt was my Christian duty,” said Schaus. “And I would just walk away.” Still, uneasiness crept in—and then frustration when he caught clients selling their free Thanksgiving turkeys on the street corner.

“I knew that we could do better. I had met these men and women, I knew their stories. I knew the potential that was inside of them,” he said.

So, Schaus and his team started using assessment sheets for people who needed help with groceries or utility bills. The get-to-know-you questionnaire scored clients from 1 to 20 on their mental health, housing, education, and addiction status. It asked them about their spiritual journeys and whether they could read or had a valid driver’s license. Schaus describes it as a conversation starter—a way to partner with the individual in need instead of doing things to them.

Staffers learn about clients’ backgrounds, their families, what motivates them. Then, they create a personalized contract, outlining three or four goals and action steps. It could be something as simple as signing up for a literacy class at the public library in exchange for a box of food. Shelter guests sign the same personalized contracts before they’re assigned a bed. Fewer people showed up at the rescue mission after it implemented the contracts, but the people who stuck with the program received more personalized help.

That’s why Schaus was stunned by the food bank inspector’s reaction during that 2017 tour. At first, he attributed the rejection to the Christian elements of the mission’s program. Since food banks affiliated with Feeding America receive federal funding and USDA food, the pantries they supply can’t require people to listen to gospel presentations. Staff and volunteers aren’t allowed to hand out tracts in the food line and can offer to pray for people only if they ask.

Schaus assured the food bank official that clients weren’t forced to participate in any religious activity. Individuals who indicated they wanted to grow spiritually might sign a ­contract committing to go to church or seek out a Christian mentor. But that was entirely up to them. Most of the ­individuals set education or employment-related goals.

“But they said … there’s nothing you can ask of them in order to get this food,” Schaus recalled.

The food bank canceled the mission’s contract, cutting off a large portion of its food supply. It became increasingly hard for Schaus to find fresh vegetables and bread, although he regularly received donations of canned goods from people in the community. He began speaking at churches and civic groups to solicit more donations, but it didn’t make up for what he’d lost. “We never really got up to that same sort of level or as consistent every single week.”

They have very few incentives to actually help people gain self-sufficiency and get out of poverty because that is a direct threat to their business model.

FEEDING AMERICA’S PROHIBITION on any exchange of food for client action steps or commitments stems from a little-known clause in the Tax Reform Act of 1976 aimed at incentivizing corporations to donate excess food instead of throw it away. Back then, companies worried their donated food would depress sales and feared lawsuits if a charity mishandled their products.

Businesses could already take a general tax deduction for the basis value of a product—what it originally cost to stock and ship the item. So, the government created an enhanced deduction: twice the item’s basis value or the basis value plus half the expected profit. During the pandemic, the government further incentivized charitable donations by allowing corporations to deduct up to 25 percent of their taxable income, instead of the typical 15 percent.

For companies to claim the write-off, the donated food must be used to care for the ill, needy, or infants and “may not be transferred by the recipient organization in exchange for money, other property, or services.”

Brian Greene is president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, the largest in the nation affiliated with Feeding America. He said protecting that write-off is a top priority: “The last thing we want to have happen is they end up getting sued by the IRS because of us. Because then, boom, the whole thing collapses.”

The Houston Food Bank’s guidebook for partner agencies, updated most recently in 2019, lists activities that could result in suspension or termination of their contract. Among them: “requires clients to participate in activities in order to receive food, requires clients to attend religious services, counseling or seminars.” Policy guides from food banks across the country include similar stipulations. Feeding America’s executive staff did not respond to my requests for comment about the regulations and their effect on local pantries.

The Houston Food Bank partners with 1,600 pantries and food programs, distributing $250 million in food every year—about $150,000 per partner. Greene, who has spent 35 years in the industry and served as CEO for three food banks, said the regulations prevent the food from being resold and ensure that partner food pantries don’t take advantage of the people they’re trying to help.

“If you’re in a food bank line, life’s not going great. And so, you’re very vulnerable,” he emphasized. “And some people can take advantage of that.”

Sari Vatske is the president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank, a 135,000-square-foot building about 15 minutes outside Austin. After a tour of the massive facility, I asked her what she thought of charities implementing an exchange model based on the idea that asking someone to contribute honors their human dignity.

“I’m not sure how requiring someone to work for food is dignifying,” she said. “Food is a right.”

Pallets of various foods are stacked on shelves in the extensive warehouse at the Houston Food Bank.

Pallets of various foods are stacked on shelves in the extensive warehouse at the Houston Food Bank. Michael Wyke/AP

While Vatske agreed it’s important to provide families with professional training and life skills, she rejected the idea of tying those things to something as basic as food: “This whole idea that someone has to sing for their supper, that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Charities that implement the exchange model operate from a radically different understanding of the human person and his deepest needs, said James Whitford, who runs a homeless shelter and food ministry in Joplin, Mo. Through more than two decades as the executive director of Watered Gardens, Whitford came to realize food isn’t most clients’ deepest need. Most of the men and women who come through the ministry’s doors need rehabilitation and strong relationships, people who will walk with them as they pursue employment and conquer addictions. (Watered Gardens won WORLD’s 2019 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion.)

Shoppers at the organization’s Mission Market push small grocery carts through aisles lined with dry goods and frozen food. It looks nothing like a traditional food pantry, where clients often get a large cardboard box filled with pre-chosen items. After Mission Market shoppers fill their carts, staffers weigh the foodstuffs and hold them while customers work in the Worth Shop to earn the products. One hour of work ­typically supplies a client with a week’s worth of food.

Whitford said the exchange model stems from understanding the human person as an individual created in the image of God to be a fellow creator and contributor. “There’s an inherent dignity and worth that is most visibly expressed through contribution,” he said. “And if our charity is drowning out that impetus to create or to produce, we’re really not allowing for the flourishing of the soul.”

Whitford and others also question how many people really need regular food handouts. On its website, Feeding America claims 44 million people in the United States face hunger, which is defined as not having access to enough food to eat, or to healthy food. But that does not reflect the actual number of Americans with empty stomachs. Feeding America relies on USDA data, but the agency admits it does not have a measurement for hunger. Instead, it measures levels of food insecurity using an annual survey of 40,000 households. Respondents are classified as “food insecure” if they report three or more conditions, such as being unable to afford balanced meals or worrying their food will run out before they can buy more.

Whitford wants to see problems solved in his clients’ lives, but Feeding America has a different mission. “I don’t get the sense that they’re trying to solve a problem,” he said.

Instead, the organization’s annual reports tout the number of meals it is able to distribute, not how many people didn’t need to get back in line.

“They have very few incentives to actually help people gain self-sufficiency and get out of poverty because that is a direct threat to their business model,” Rachidi with the American Enterprise Institute pointed out.

Rachidi doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. Not only does Feeding America want to safeguard the current system, but so do the federal agencies and corporations it works with. Corporations donate millions of pounds of food every year, confident Feeding America’s regulations will safeguard their lucrative tax deduction. And the organization advocates for USDA programs that supply regional food banks. If anything changes, Rachidi said, it will be thanks to grassroots efforts—local organizations talking to their representatives and voicing their concerns that the federal funding and ­corporate donations funneled to food banks are not lifting people out of poverty.

“I think if those questions keep being asked,” she said, “eventually people will start to pay attention.”

Schaus talks with participants of the Gospel Rescue Mission.

Schaus talks with participants of the Gospel Rescue Mission. Photo by Jeremy Scott/Genesis

WATERED GARDENS CUT TIES with its local food bank when it decided to pursue an exchange model. But some ministries aren’t willing to lose access to a key source of food. So, they’ve found other ways to incentivize their clients to take steps toward self-sufficiency. StreetWise, a ministry serving needy families in Atlanta, partners with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to run a mobile food pantry one Saturday per month. Working families who make appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays to meet one-on-one with staff get enough food to feed their household for several weeks.

Tracy Joseph, the organization’s executive director and CEO, said the goal is to establish relationships with families and help them build long-term stability. Staffers check in with the families receiving food to understand their needs and see if their situation is improving. But they have to be careful. StreetWise receives 2.2 million pounds of food a year from the Atlanta Community Food Bank and its affiliate corporations. It distributed that food to 8,600 families last year. “That allows us to serve at such a mighty level,” Joseph said. “And we have to follow the rules that they have.”

Joseph wants StreetWise to incorporate more programs that enable families to establish independence. So it’s experimenting with how to encourage families to participate without directly tying services to food, such as giving those families more access to the ministry’s clothing store. “I believe we still have a robust ability to serve and still focus on the dignity of the families,” he said.

Similarly, Coalition of Charities in Monett, Mo., only receives food from Ozarks Food Harvest for certain programs. Rachel Luebbering is executive director of the nonprofit hub that provides an assortment of services to families and individuals in difficult situations. Staff members give first-time clients one bag of food. If they come back, they talk through next steps, whether that’s a budgeting class or addiction recovery. For every five minutes of work, clients earn $1 to purchase prepackaged food, clothing, and hygiene products at the coalition’s boutique or take a hot shower.

While the food bank donations can’t be a part of this exchange, Luebbering told me the coalition uses that food to support kids aging out of foster care or victims of domestic violence. The elderly and disabled also receive emergency assistance. Even though volunteering at the coalition isn’t a requirement, she said many of these clients still offer. “People love when they get to have purpose and have a part in their own success,” she said. “So we never keep that from someone.”

At first, Rich Schaus just accepted the Gospel Rescue Mission’s lost contract with the Eastern Oklahoma Food Bank, confident God would provide in some other way. “And then the longer time went on, the more I felt like we were wronged,” he said. “There has to be a better system. That can’t be the right way to do it.”

About six months after the food bank cut him off, Schaus contacted Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and invited him to visit the mission. Shelter clients shared their stories over dinner and told the senator about the programs that had equipped them with the tools to change their lives.

Several months later, one of Lankford’s field representatives told Schaus he had contacted the food bank about the situation. The next day, a food bank representative called to talk about reinstating the mission’s contract. The young woman who visited for the required inspection never asked about the assessment sheets or personalized contracts.

“It just went on like nothing ever happened,” Schaus said.

Now the mission is able to pick up food from the local Walmart and other grocery chains affiliated with Feeding America. “If I hadn’t been reinstated into the food bank system, I would not be able to have what I have now,” Schaus said. Still, he recognizes that his situation is unique. Too many local ministries are forced to make difficult decisions about how to structure their programs.

When Feeding America tallies the tens of millions of people it feeds year after year, America celebrates. The country can do better, Schaus said. “How many people get food today that you don’t have to give food to six months from now? That’s the real victory.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.


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