Hunger Is Still a Huge Problem in America. Who is Funding to Promote Food Security?

While many families are buying all the extra fixings to make Thanksgiving dinner special, 79 percent of low-income households in Feeding America's client base report "purchasing the cheapest food available, even if they knew it wasn’t the healthiest option, in an effort to provide enough food for their household." We also know from Feeding America's report, Hunger in America 2014, that food insecurity has been on the rise since the Great Recession: One in seven Americans rely on food banks to see them through. Viewed by race, the results are even more startling: One in four African Americans relies on a food bank; one in six Latinos. Meanwhile, some 45 million Americans rely on food stamps. 

It's 2015, and hunger is still a huge problem in America. And it's a problem inextricably linked to larger issues of economic hardship. In fact, many working Americans face food insecurity, with studies finding that a growing share of food stamp recipients participate in the labor force. This is part of a broader story of the difficulties that low-wage workers confront in making ends meet. Earlier this year, a study found that about 48 percent of home healthcare workers are on public assistance, as are 46 percent of child care workers and 52 percent of fast-food workers. Another big category of hungry people are older and disabled Americans on fixed incomes that fall short every month. 

The larger drivers of hunger make this is a tough challenge for philanthropy. On the one hand, urgent work is needed in communities to address the immediate problem of food insecurity. On the other, funders also need to be looking upstream to address the systemic conditions that create this problem. Yet these tend to be two very different kinds of enterprises, and quite a few anti-hunger funders want nothing to do with advocacy to raise wages or strengthen the safety net.

The good news is that more efforts are emerging to bridge this gap, and this is an exciting time when it comes to addressing food insecurity in America. There's more attention to funding approaches that account for multiple dimensions of impact, looking to improve not just food quantity, but food quality and food availability for all people, as well as underlying issues behind food security like struggling local economies and lack of quality markets in impoverished areas.

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is helping the sector to conceptualize how to impact multiple domains around food with its Food Funder Compass, which defines four main areas of impact for food: health and hunger, environment, vibrant communities, and rights and equity. The compass provides a way for funders to maximize impact across these four domains.

A report from the Food Funder Compass provides examples of programs that address multiple domains related to food, like Philabundance in Philadelphia, which is testing new models for hunger reduction such as offering alternative revenue and funding sources to maintain grocery stores in underserved communities. 

Who are some of the funders working these different areas of impact as they fund food security in America? Here's a quick rundown of some of the major funders we see operating in this space. 

Corporate Funders:

A number of corporations have made hunger a top philanthropic focus. Among those who've given big in the past few years:

  • Bank of America. Bank of America got involved with the hunger issue in a major way in 2008, and has said that it's given at least $30 million to address this issue since then. It's said that to fight hunger, "the bank has mobilized a full array of assets including philanthropy, volunteerism, fresh food financing and local nonprofit board service." It's been a partner of Feeding America. 
  • ConAgra Foods Foundation. It would make sense that a top agriculture and food company would have an eye on this issue, and sure enough, ConAgra has lately been a top donor to Feeding America, giving the group $10 million last year. Regarding its product donations to Feeding America, the company says that "in 2015, we have donated the equivalent of nearly 2.5 million meals a month in food donations." The company has also given at a smaller level to an array of other anti-hunger efforts. 
  • Caterpillar Foundation. Another company in the agricultural space coming through big for Feeding America is Caterpillar, giving the group $4.5 million in the past few years. Funds from the Caterpillar Foundation also go to various human service groups that fight hunger, including United Way. 
  • The Walmart Foundation: Walmart has given some large grants for food security in recent years, including a total of $8.59 million in 2012 and 2013 to Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C. for the purpose of aiding nutrition and food security for children and youth, and low income people. Walmart also gave Feeding America $3.3 million in 2014 for its food banks, and has been the biggest backer of the Food Research and Action Center, the top policy group working on hunger in Washington, D.C.. As well, Walmart has made a steady string of grants to local food banks in the past few years. Its recent efforts to increase the minimum wage for associates will keep a lot of its own employees out of the food bank lines, but the behemoth corporation could do more. 

Private Foundations:

While corporate funders are most comfortable backing direct service approaches to hunger, private foundations are more open to strategies that get at deeper causes of food insecurity.  

  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation: With its primary focus on needy children, Kellogg's funding for food security issues goes back a long way. Recently, its giving has become more attuned to impacting multiple domains on the food compass. In July 2015, Kellogg made a $150,000 grant to the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network in Michigan to increase access to healthy food and also increase "the number of economically vulnerable families attaining/retaining good jobs by supporting planning efforts for a store, incubator kitchen and meeting space." Also in July 2015, Kellogg made a $350,000 grant to Agri-Cultura Network in New Mexico for the purpose of promoting local agriculture, economic security and healthy food options for vulnerable children by supporting La Cosecha's community agriculture program. Kellogg also recently provided $375,000 in funding to the Farmworker Association of Florida to improve health and food security for low-income farmworker families through "expansion of community gardens, markets, garden/nutrition education and food/farm entrepreneur training."
  • The Laura and John Arnold Foundation: The Arnold foundation has stepped in with a multidisciplinary approach targeting some of the underlying causes of hunger. It recently made a $4.4 million grant to Feeding America to launch Collaborating for Clients—a new initiative that aims to work with nonprofits to address affordable housing, job training, steady employment, and healthcare services, while also providing food support. The foundation previously helped Feeding America pilot this project in partnership with the Urban Institute.
  • Howard G. Buffett Foundation: Warren Buffet's son Howard has made a name for himself in philanthropy as a farmer attacking hunger. While Buffett's biggest giving focus is agriculture and food security overseas, he's a major backer of Feeding America and other anti-hunger efforts in the U.S.
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation: Packard supports sustainable agriculture and community food systems. In 2014, it gave Pie Ranch in Pescadero, California $100,000 for general support of its agricultural work. Packard has also given several grants to Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, including a 2015 grant for $1 million to increase distribution of healthy food. It also gave Second Harvest another $150,000 in 2015 to support the Prepared Foods Project. Taking yet another angle on food security, Packard also supported Sailors for the Sea of Newport, Rhode Island in 2015 with a $250,000 grant "for continued work to raise awareness about seafood sustainability and Japan's fisheries issues."
  • David Tepper Foundation: David Tepper is a billionaire hedge fund manager, and hunger is one of his top philanthropic causes. The Tepper Foundation gave $3 million to Feeding America in 2011. The foundation has also given to other national and international poverty and hunger outfits such as Action Against Hunger, UNICEF and CARE, in sums ranging from $50,000 to $125,000. 


Beyond the list above, which includes the most easily noticed funders in the hunger space, plenty of other foundations are working food insecurity issuestoo many to cover here. Some are keenly interested in research and policy advocacy. In recent years, for example, the Food Research and Action Center has gotten funds from a number of foundations, including Robert Wood Johnson, the California Endowment, Newman's Own Foundation, and the Moriah Fund. Many funders give to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a leading defender of the SNAP program inside the Beltway. 

Other funders come to food issues with different concerns, such as spreading organic farming, the local sourcing of food, and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported on the large numbers of such donors entering the food space in recent years, while the Environmental Grantmakers Association reports that its members are rapidly increasing giving to food and sustainable agriculture, with $110 million in investments in 2013, double the 2012 number of $55 million.

Of course, no post about food security would be complete without a discussion of the massive role that community and local foundations play in addressing this issue. A huge percentage of philanthropic dollars to fight hunger flow from local funders to local nonprofits. Community foundations in nearly every state have done a great deal of giving to community food banks and other resources that address food security.

Finally, this is an area where ordinary individual donors play a major role. So this year, as you're sitting down to a meal with friends or family on Thanksgiving, keep that in mind. You might also consider loading up a bag of healthy groceries (peanut butter and tuna are almost always needed!) to drop off at your local food bank. We're still a very hungry country.