Christian Charity Alone Won’t End Hunger

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, more than 10 percent of Americans live in households where having enough nutritious food for everyone is far from guaranteed. For nearly 4 percent of American households, the problem is even worse: They suffer from such low food security that “normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” While adults in these households will sometimes go without food to try to shield their children from going hungry, last year more than half a million children in the U.S. lived in households where they did not always have enough to eat.

The Bible is unambiguous about our duty as Christians to feed the hungry. In the Hebrew Bible, God provides manna from heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16). God’s abundance is a theme throughout the Scriptures, including Jesus feeding the 5,000 and telling us he came so that all “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). From that abundance comes a responsibility to share what we have with the less fortunate. As Sojourners president Adam Russell Taylor recently wrote: “The prophet Isaiah exhorts his listeners to respond to God’s abundance with acts of justice and compassion, including sharing our food with all who hunger and dismantling systems that produce hunger in the first place (58:7). Our own access to wholeness and abundance is explicitly tied to seeking the wholeness of others.” Perhaps most significant of all is Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 25 that how we treat people suffering from hunger, thirst, and other vulnerable situations is how we treat Christ himself (31-46).

And yet, far too many Christians cling to a stubborn belief that individual acts of charity are sufficient to fulfill their obligation to help all those experiencing hunger and poverty. While acts of charity like donating to a regional food bank or volunteering at a local soup kitchen are commendable and indeed necessary, they are not sufficient. Christians not only have a duty to do good works through individual charity, but also to urge their political representatives to do what is in their power to end hunger in the U.S. and around the world.

As Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy organization dedicated to ending hunger, puts it: “Throughout the Scriptures, God calls people into community and sets the expectation that leaders (whether they are kings, pharaohs, or governments) should care for their people (Psalm 72:2). Therefore, we also reflect God’s love by challenging individuals and institutions given the power to change laws and structures that keep people vulnerable.”

In addition to these theological motivations, there’s an eminently practical reason to focus our anti-hunger efforts on government advocacy: Churches and charities don’t give nearly enough to end hunger. According to Bread for the World, “Federal nutrition programs provide roughly 10 times as much food assistance as private churches and charities combined.” In other words, if we want to address the scale of hunger in the U.S., we must ensure federal, state, and local governments are doing their part alongside the nonprofit and private sectors. That’s the only way to transform the underlying conditions and structures that cause families to struggle with food insecurity in the first place.

And when Christians and other people of faith do get involved in urging the government to do more to end hunger, the results can be promising. We saw this last week as President Joe Biden convened the first White House conference on issues of hunger and health in 50 years. Earlier this year, more than 400 pastors and faith leaders as well as faith-based organizations from multiple coalitions were among those urging the White House to host such an event. In his remarks at the conference, Biden cited faith leaders as part of a multi-sector team — including leaders in business, agriculture, labor, and philanthropy — that would need to collaborate to end hunger by 2030, one of the goals of the Biden administration.

I attended the conference virtually and appreciated its focus on elevating the voices of people who have been directly impacted by hunger in their own lives. As Jimmieka Mills, co-founder of Equitable Spaces, said when she introduced Biden, many people trying to access food and other government assistance face barriers “that [are] often the result of policy solutions that were not informed by those directly impacted by them.”

As someone who formerly worked on anti-hunger initiatives, I also appreciated that acknowledged “a critical step to reduce hunger and associated disparities is helping all Americans become economically secure.” This link — between hunger and larger economic disparity — may seem obvious, but it’s often missing in efforts to address hunger, both globally and domestically. In fact, some hunger experts criticized last week’s White House event and the strategy it unveiled for not going far enough to address these root causes and not holding the food industry accountable for making and marketing so much unhealthy food, though they still acknowledged the strategy was “a step in the right direction.”

Some of measures in the proposal Biden unveiled already had the support of businesses and nonprofits that have promised to implement them — including Rethink Food, a nonprofit that will help restaurants prevent food waste, and Tyson, which promised $250 million to provide better protein at food banks. However, many of the policy changes Biden proposes, like making the expanded Child Tax Credit permanent, will require Congress to act — and that, in turn, will require all of us to keep the pressure on our elected officials.

The anti-hunger advocates I spoke with after the conference offered gratitude that the event took place mixed with an awareness that these efforts are part of a long but promising road ahead, if we all do our part.

Max Finberg, a life-long anti-hunger advocate and a former colleague of mine who led the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, praised the bipartisan support and advocacy that made the event possible.

“I’m grateful for all those who helped make the conference happen,” he wrote via email, “but even more so [those who] will be part of the follow up to achieve the end of hunger in the richest country in the history of the world.”

Eric Mitchell, another former colleague of mine and the current executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, wrote to me via email that he was encouraged by Biden’s remarks, but knows further advocacy will be key.

“The end of hunger starts with public and political will, but it definitely doesn’t end there,” he wrote. “The White House Conference was more than a series of commitments – it was a rallying cry to ensure that none of us take our foot off the gas to endure that every child, every senior, every family, and every community has access and means to sufficient and nutritious food.”

In his remarks last week, Biden said, “no matter what else divides us, if a parent cannot feed a child, there’s nothing else that matters for that parent.” For Christians, I’d hope the same is true: No matter our political and theological persuasions, I hope we can agree that there are few tasks more important than consigning hunger to the past. In the U.S., that means all of us continuing to insist that Congress make the Child Tax Credit permanent; advocating for further changes in the White House’s hunger plan; and pushing for the other pro-family, pro-common-good policies that were left out of the Inflation Reduction Act. Let’s make sure our representatives understand that getting our votes depends first and foremost on what they plan to do to help people experiencing hunger and poverty.

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