Our conversation about the role of food banks has evolved since I started working with Food Lifeline 21 years ago. At first we referred to ourselves as an emergency food system—our role was to respond to unexpected financial setbacks a family might experience. When food banks opened nationwide, they were founded on the belief that they were temporary and put in place to address short-term needs.
The first six years I did this work, I was struggling to make ends meet. In my first Executive Director role my salary was $14,000 per year, and my weekly grocery budget for a household of two was $23. Like virtually every person experiencing hunger, I became masterful at stretching a meager budget. Sometimes I couldn’t make it last, and I needed to ask for help.
Over the years, we’ve seen a growing recognition among food banks that food inequality isn’t going away—that our country needs both systems change and a comprehensive safety net. Some say Food Lifeline’s energy should be focused on addressing the root causes of hunger, while others say our efforts should be directed toward feeding people today. Having experienced food insecurity firsthand, I believe we must focus on both—the root causes and the “right now” needs of our neighbors living on razor thin margins.
Staying true to our mission to end hunger requires bold action. Food Lifeline’s next chapter emphasizes addressing both systems change and the root causes of hunger. We will prioritize sharing what we have learned as an organization, engaging our community in deeper conversations about why hunger exists, and exploring what we can accomplish together.
Hunger does not exist because of the failure of individuals. Hunger exists because our systems have failed individuals. We’ve erected barriers that have left people behind, and we’ve allowed our safety net to fall into disrepair.
Today, as a community and a society, we must wholeheartedly commit to nutritious food as a human right and create equitable systems to ensure that everyone has access to food every day.
Linda Nageotte was the President and CEO of Food Lifeline from 1998 to 2023 and worked in hunger relief and anti-poverty work for nearly three decades.