Hunger amid plenty: The moral dilemmas of farming, food and poverty

More food is being given out to hungry people. Still, 15 percent of U.S. households do not have regular and reliable access to nutritious food, and more people are requesting help than ever before. Advocates argue that America can – and should – end hunger now. Religious groups and people are at the forefront of increasing aid and pushing for policy reforms aimed at ending hunger in America. Indeed, the land of plenty has plenty of people experiencing hunger, as reports show.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2011 annual report on the incidence of hunger, released September 2012, revealed that while the overall incidence of food insecurity was stable, an increasing number of families are being labeled as “very low food security.” Families with very low food security often did not have food available at times and eating patterns were disrupted by this lack.

More than one in seven American households was described in the report as “food insecure.” This term means a household does not have regular and reliable access to nutritious food.

The 17.9 million households categorized as food insecure in 2011 represents an increase from 13 million households in 2007.

The reasons are not hard to find, experts say. The economy is tottering toward what’s been described as a jobless recovery, unemployment is high and the poverty rate is up to 15 percent. Advocates argue that America can and should end hunger, and religious groups and people of faith are at the forefront of the effort.

At the same time, some hunger advocates are promoting fresh ways of thinking about the problem – and even suggesting that traditional approaches may be more Band-Aid than blessing.

Former food bank director Mark Winne, for example, argued provocatively in his 2008 book, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, that food banks are futile charitable efforts and that resources would be better directed toward public policy changes. Other advocates want to refocus ideas about food supply: eating more nutritious and local food, to decrease dependence on remote sources and increase responsibility for providing one’s own food. Religious groups are among those putting more emphasis on advocacy, systemic reform, ending poverty and rethinking what it means to put food on the table.

Why it matters

Caring for the poor and hungry is a central tenet of religious traditions, and religious groups operate the majority of soup kitchens and food banks across the country. The persistence of hunger — despite agricultural productivity and a highly developed food distribution system — also raises a basic question about American institutions and citizens’ political will: Why are people still without adequate food?

Angles for reporters

This is pre-eminently a local story as well as a familiar story; new numbers change the picture and provide nuance. Every state has a network of agencies and organizations that deal with hunger. What is the picture in your state? How is the economy coming back, or isn’t it? How adequate is the support for those who have fallen on hard times? What about low-wage workers? What do officials say? What do those on the front lines – standing in food lines or handing out groceries or meals – say?

Some anti-hunger organizations are working on the larger context of food supplies for communities. They are promoting community gardens, sustainable agriculture, relationships between farmers and communities, and economic justice for food producers. They say sustainability of food production and consumption is fundamental to community food security. What kind of links, if any, are there between your local groups concerned about the Earth and creation care and those working on poverty and hunger?

Anti-poverty and anti-hunger activism is often attractive to young people. Bread for the World’s blog, for example, has a number of young contributors. High schools and colleges organize and participate in events that raise awareness and/or funding. What is happening at your local schools and campuses?

In addition to the familiar Christian-based food services, other religious groups operate relief centers and engage in other anti-hunger initiatives. Many Buddhist centers, for example, prepare or distribute food to homeless people as a compassionate service. If you have local Buddhist groups, ask them about their community service and how they understand the practice. Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of sacrifice, is celebrated by giving away meat or some equivalent donation. The Muslims Against Hunger Project works to involve Muslims in efforts to combat hunger and homelessness. What kinds of projects are local Muslims involved in?

Does the holiday of Thanksgiving – America’s biggest meal – provide an occasion for people to think about community food supply and sufficiency, or to do things differently?

News articles and research

National sources

Ethics institutes

  • W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics

    The W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. It focuses on the research on and teaching of applied ethics in fields such as science and technology, health, research, and animal welfare.

  • Emory Center for Ethics

    Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta focuses on the study of ethics in decision-making. The Center focuses on four pillars: health, science, and ethics; citizenship and the public good; organizational and corporate ethics; and ethics and the arts. Paul Root Wolpe is director.

    Contact: 404-727-3150.
  • Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

    The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University studies and researches ethics in professional and private life. Eric Beerbohm is director.

  • Consortium Ethics Program

    The Consortium Ethics Program at the University of Pittsburgh is a regional health care ethics network. It educates health care professional and institutions in clinical health care ethics. Rosa Lynn Pinkus is director.

  • Ethics Resource Center

    The Ethics Resource Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization whose vision is a world where individuals and organizations act with integrity. Its focus is organizational ethics. It is based in Arlington, Va. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 703-647-2185.
  • Dartmouth College Ethics Institute

    The Dartmouth College Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH focuses on applied and professional ethics, ranging from medical and business ethics to teaching and research ethics. Aine Donovan is director.

  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

    The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., is dedicated to researching modern ethical issues and attempting to create solutions in diverse fields such as bioethics, the Internet, government and character ethics.

Secular organizations

  • The Alliance to End Hunger

    The Alliance to End Hunger is a coalition of groups across cultures and faiths that fosters partnerships to end hunger in the world. It was begun by David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. Nathan Magrath is the manager of communications and outreach.

  • Community Food Security Coalition

    Community Food Security Coalition does advocacy, education and training on issues of food production and distribution to build sustainable and local food supplies. It includes member groups from the U.S. and Canada. Miriam Barnard is executive director of the Portland, Ore., group.

  • Congressional Hunger Center

    The bipartisan Congressional Hunger Center, which grew out of the U.S. House Select Committee on Hunger, trains anti-hunger advocates. A number of members of Congress are on its board; Zack Bly is the communications specialist.

  • Food Research and Action Center

    Food Research and Action Center is a Washington, D.C., advocacy group working on public policy and public-private partnerships on food and hunger issues. The organization maintains statistics about poverty and food insecurity.

  • The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness

    The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness educates and trains students to work on hunger and homelessness issues. It’s based in Chicago.


    RESULTS is a nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that works to create the political will to end hunger. Joanne Carter is executive director.

  • Share Our Strength

    Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization based in Washington, D.C., focuses on ending childhood hunger in America.

  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors

    The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the organization of American cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, has been surveying hunger and homelessness in urban areas for more than two decades.

    Contact: 202-293-7330.
  • WhyHunger

    WhyHunger is a New York-based organization that focuses on hunger and poverty nationally and internationally. Contact through Debbie Grunbaum.

Religious organizations

  • Bread for the World

    Bread for the World is the largest faith-based advocacy movement against hunger, a collective of Christian groups. It posts hunger facts and figures. It is based in Washington, D.C.

  • The ELCA World Hunger program

    The ELCA World Hunger program helps alleviate hunger through advocacy, education, relief and sustainable development.

  • Foods Resource Bank

    Foods Resource Bank is made up of 15 Christian denominations and agencies that work at the grass roots with farmers and communities to develop local food security. Modeled after a Canadian program, it has both overseas and U.S. projects. Contact Marv Baldwin, president and CEO of the group, which has offices in Illinois and Michigan.

  • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

    MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is a national nonprofit agency working against hunger in the United States and abroad. Its president and CEO, Abby J. Leibman, says the 2012 farm bill should protect and increase food stamp funding, provide incentives for farmers to make produce more affordable at local markets and make nutritional improvements to the government’s surplus food program. Read her Oct. 6, 2011, column on the subject at

  • Muslims Against Hunger Project

    The Muslims Against Hunger Project works to involve Muslims in efforts to combat hunger and homelessness.

  • Presbyterian Hunger Program

    Presbyterian Hunger Program is a ministry responding to hunger and poverty domestically and abroad. Rebecca Barnes is the coordinator.

    Contact: 800-728-7228 x5624.
  • The Souper Bowl of Caring

    The Souper Bowl of Caring mobilizes young people to do something about hunger and poverty. Born of church youth groups in Columbia, S.C., in 1990 and pegged to Super Bowl weekend, by 2009 the event generated more than $10 million for anti-hunger and poverty groups. Find local participating groups.

  • The Society of St. Andrew

    The Society of St. Andrew in Big Island, Va., was founded in 1979 and began salvaging potatoes and other produce in 1983. It operates a Gleaning Network and Potato & Produce Project that salvage unpicked usable produce. It has regional offices in six Southern states and gleaning operations in 14 states. Mike Hickcox is the communications director.

  • Bread for the World

    Bread for the World is the largest faith-based advocacy movement against hunger, a collective of Christian groups. It posts hunger facts and figures. It is based in Washington, D.C.

    President David Beckmann, a clergyman and economist, is one of the leading spokesmen in the faith community on hunger issues. He testified before Congress on Oct. 29, 2009, in support of the U.S. Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, an Obama administration effort to improve access to food and support agricultural development by vulnerable populations.

  • Catholic Charities USA

    Catholic Charities USA works in various areas such as adoption counseling, disaster relief, poverty awareness and raising awareness of social issues such as human trafficking and racial inequality. It works to provide aid to people in need and to activate the Catholic population to action.

    Part of its mission focuses on hunger as part of its work to reduce poverty. It surveys local affiliates quarterly to pinpoint trends; 75 percent reported increases in requests for food assistance in the second quarter of 2009.


Regional sources

In the Northeast

In the South

  • James P. Ziliak

    James P. Ziliak is director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, where he also holds the Gatton Endowed Chair in Microeconomics. He was the lead researcher on a 2008 national study of hunger among the nation’s senior citizens.

  • Norman Wirzba

    Norman Wirzba is professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. His research focuses on “understanding and promoting practices that can equip both rural and urban church communities to be more faithful and responsible members of creation,” specifically through eating as a spiritual discipline, theological reflection as informed by place and agrarianism as a viable and comprehensive cultural force. Wirzba’s books include (as co-author) Making Peace With the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile With Creation.

  • Come to the Table

    Come to the Table is a project of the Rural Life Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches that links food, faith and farms. Scott Marlow is executive director.

  • The Mississippi Food Network

    The Mississippi Food Network in Jackson serves more than 320 churches and other agencies that provide food.

  • The Houston Food Bank

    The Houston Food Bank is dedicated to feeding those without sufficient food in the Houston area. The media relations contact is Adele Brady.

In the Midwest

  • Craig Gundersen

    Craig Gundersen is associate professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research, much of it national, focuses on food insecurity issues.

  • Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr.

    Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr. is a professor in the department of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches a course called Food, Culture and Society, which explores hunger issues.

  • The Rime Buddhist Center

    The Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City, Mo., teaches Buddhist tradition and Tibetan culture and to increase cultural understanding between the East and the Western world. Gabi Otto is the executive director. Email through the website.

    The center also runs a program dedicated to feeding the homeless.

    Contact: 816-471-7073.

In the West

  • Donald E. Messer

    Donald E. Messer is a co-author of Ending Hunger Now. A United Methodist theologian, he is now executive director of the Center for Church and Global AIDS, which is based in Centennial, Colo.

    Contact: 303-770-5809.
  • Tamera Zivic

    Tamera Zivic is executive director of the World Hunger Education, Advocacy & Training (WHEAT) Organization in Phoenix, which works with 5,300 congregations in Arizona. She is a member of the national board of Bread for the World.

  • Michael Schut

    Michael Schut is the Seattle-based author of Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread. He is the associate program officer for economic and environmental affairs in the Seattle regional office of the Advocacy Center of the Episcopal Church.

  • Community Food Security Coalition

    Community Food Security Coalition does advocacy, education and training on issues of food production and distribution to build sustainable and local food supplies. It includes member groups from the U.S. and Canada. Miriam Barnard is executive director of the Portland, Ore., group.

  • Earth Ministry

    Earth Ministry includes congregational activists in the Puget Sound, Wash., area, but its programs and resources are in use throughout the United States and Canada. It is interested in creation care and eco-justice, including food issues. Though based in Christianity, Earth Ministry’s programs and membership are open to people of all faiths. LeeAnne Beres is the executive director.

  • Food Lifeline

    Food Lifeline in Seattle is Washington state’s largest hunger relief agency. It has statistics on the people it serves. Mark Coleman is communications director.

  • Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force

    Created by the state Legislature in 1989, the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force promotes awareness, compiles research and works on public policy change. One in six Oregonians – a record number – received SNAP (food stamp) benefits in June 2009. Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger is a partner organization. Contact Simone Crowe, communications director.

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