Wait a Minute, Now the Arnolds Are Tackling Hunger, Too?

Just when you think you’ve pegged Laura and John Arnold’s giving, they turn around and do something completely unpredictable and force us to take another look. 

Their foundation has become known in recent years for its work on education, criminal justice reform, pensions, and the integrity of science—which sounds like a full plate for any funder, even one drawing on a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund fortune. But the Arnolds heaped even more on their agenda in the past year or two with a significant push into healthcare, looking for ways to improve the efficency of a dysfunctional, $3 trillion system. 

Enough already, right? Well, not quite. The foundation is also tackling one of the most pressing but oft-neglected public health crises in America: hunger.

Hunger and food insecurity affects people of every age, race and ethnicity. It is estimated that one out of every seven Americans—that’s 48 million people—lived in food insecure households last year, including some 15 million children. And while most people associate hunger with poverty, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, studies have shown that unemployment, rather than poverty, is a more reliable indicator of food insecurity among Americans. 

Now the Arnold Foundation is stepping in with a multidisciplinary approach that it hopes will target the root cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. This comes in the form of a $4.4 million grant to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, for the launch of Collaborating for Clients—a new initiative that will bring nonprofit organizations together to address food insecurity and help families find affordable housing, job training, steady employment, and healthcare services. The foundation previously supported work by Feeding America to incubate this project, with help from the Urban Institute. 

There are plenty of foundations out there that focus on employment, affordable housing and healthcare, but they are often kept in silos, disconnected from the web of social inequality that ties them together. And hunger, which represents the most egregious byproduct of all these challenges, is rarely addressed head-on or in a holistic way. Meanwhile, the Arnold Foundation's thing is to scout around for persistent, unsolved problems in society and then "apply a rigorous and comprehensive, entrepreneurial problem-solving approach to these areas."

That methodology explains why this funder seems all over the map. It's less interested in drilling into particular issue areas, like most foundations, than in identifying opportunities for breakthroughs wherever they may exist. 

Is that strategy the best way to have impact? Ask us some years from now, when it's easier to assess the fruits of Arnold's approach. For now, though, it sure makes for interesting grantmaking, and the move into hunger is an example of that. 

Philanthropy directed at hunger has traditionally been focused on food distribution services, like soup kitchens and meals on wheels programs. But while these efforts serve a critical and immediate need, they fail to address the root causes of hunger, leaving us nowhere near ending hunger in America. Case in point: Walmart’s efforts in this area. The company's foundation has been pouring money into food banks and summer meals for low-income children and their families. And yet, thanks to the retail giant’s low wages and benefits, Walmart employees often rely on food stamps to get by. What's wrong with that picture?

Related: Huh? Walmart Foundation Battles Hunger As Walmart Workers Turn to Food Stamps

Ending hunger is going to take a lot more than summer programs and better stocked food banks. It’s going to require a complete overhaul of our approach to understanding hunger and its triggers. 

Collaborating for Clients launches this fall with pilot programs in five local food banks in various regions of the country. The pilot programs, in true Arnold fashion, serve as an opportunity to collect data and examine how food banks can best work with other partner organizations to make a measurable impact in their communities.

Participating food banks include:

  • Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Columbus
  • Food Bank of Northern Nevada in Reno
  • The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina in Winston-Salem
  • Food In Need of Distribution (FIND Food Bank) in Indio, California
  • Vermont Foodbank

The pilot programs are expected to last three years.

While we hate to be cynics, we're guessing that this project, whatever good it may do, is actually not going to get at the "root causes" of hunger in America. Why? Because these efforts can only do so much to affect the deeper economic and political forces that perpetuate an economy that leaves so many workers without opportunity and often consigns even those who can find full-time work to live near the poverty line. 

Will taking on systemic inequality be the next stop for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation? Stay tuned.