Journalists and documentarians rather than charities and foundations are at the front lines of advocacy for food-related reforms.
The New York Times magazine recently featured an essay by Michael Pollan, author of last year's bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma, about the impact of the farm bill on how people in the US eat. Mr. Pollan argues that the reason that obesity affects poor people more than the affluent is that farm subsidies, particularly on corn, soybeans, and wheat, lower the price of the empty-calorie processed foods, soft drinks, and snacks. With the farm bill up for renewal this year, it's a timely argument.
What struck me in reading this is how investigative journalists and film documentarians seem to own the food issue. Before The Omnivore's Dilemma, there was Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001) and the documentary Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock (2004). It's not a cause that we associate with charities or advocacy groups.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted the relative apathy in the charitable community around food issues (at least until recently) in an article this week about foundation support for local food production (Debra E. Blum, no subscription required). Of course there's Farm Aid (EIN 36-3383233 Form 990), which still shows Willie Nelson, as president and Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews on its board.
But the story quotes Martin Teitel, executive director of the Cedar Tree Foundation (EIN 13-3601934 Form 990), explaining that after decades of inattention foundations are finally waking up to the importance of agriculture. Even so, the article notes that at this point even Wal-Mart is paying attention to the interest in local produce, which is to say that foundations are hardly at the forefront.
The contribution of $15 million by the huge W. K. Kellogg Foundation (EIN 36-6030614 Form 990) is duly recorded (of course the Kellogg fortune was made by one of the founders of today's processed food industry).
And on the other hand, charities play a minor but still significant role in the processed food industry through the food bank system coordinated by America's Second Harvest (EIN 36-3673599 Form 990). At the heart of the food bank system is a special rule deduction in section 170(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (Title 26 of the US Code), which allows corporations a deduction up to double the cost of in-kind donated food. The processed food industry benefits greatly from this deduction, and snack foods, cookies, and soft drinks are still the backbone of the corporate food donations at food banks.
So food remains an area where foundations and charities are not leading the way to reform. At best they seem to be latecomers to the effort and at worst they seem to be pulling in the wrong direction. There may be something to the idea of a nonprofit-industrial complex, as was suggested in a recent panel discussion in Chicago reported on by Nonprofiteer (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex).