1967 John van Hengel & food banks
philanthrophy for the hungry
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Throughout history, people have developed initiatives to ease the burden of hunger for their fellow-citizens. Within Christian religion, feeding the hungry is the first of the Works of Mercy. Within Islam, the zakat is one of the five pillars and involves alms-giving for those who are able to. The twentieth century was an era with lare-scale food aid initiatives such as soup kitchens during the Great Depression and the Second World War, and global food aid for countries disrupted by war and drought such as Ethiopia.

In the decades after the Second World War the claim was put forward that hunger had been eradicated in Western countries. In the 1960s, for example in the influential research of Peter Townsend in the UK, this claim was shown to be unsustainable. Various programmes emerged, such as the food stamp programme in the US. Soup kitchens also continued to attract users.
In Phoenix, Arizona, John van Hengel was dissatisfied with the limited efficiency and started looking for improvements. After meeting a single mother with ten children who pointed out the amount of throwaway food available in grocery store dumpsters, he started collecting food that was still good for human consumption but no longer saleable by supermarkets. He founded the world’s first food bank: St. Mary`s Food Bank Alliance, in 1967. It not only helped to feed the hungry but also helped to solve the inexcusable wastage of perfectly edible food by the commercial food industry. Worldwide, there is excessive food production and affluence, but also inefficient food distribution and hunger. Both could balance each other out.
Van Hengel`s food bank didn`t distribute food directly to the hungry, but worked through a network of decentralised distribution centres such as pantries and community centres. Soon, similar initiatives emerged in other cities throughout the USA. In 1976 van Hengel established Second Harvest to assist these local initiatives and facilitate the work of food banks. It later changed its name to Feeding America. By the time John van Hengel died at the age of 83, American foodbanks daily provided food for about 23 million citizens! For the UK, it is estimated that currently half a million people rely on food banks.

Over the years, the idea of food banks spread across and beyond the USA. In 1984, the first European food bank was opened in France, followed by others such as Belgium in 1986 and the Netherlands in 2002. Here, food banks were not so much clearing houses of food to a decentralised network of distribution outlets, but rather direct contact points with hungry citizens. The same happened in France, where the comedian Coluche started the "restos du coeur" (restaurants with a heart) in 1985. He learned that it costs warehouses more to stock surplus food than to distribute it for free to hungry people.
Food banks also spread outside the US and Europe, e.g. to South Africa.

In the years following the global financial crisis of 2008, food banks have faced an ever increasing demand, raising fears that the supply would no longer be sufficient. The rise of food banks also resulted in discussions and concerns, related to the stigma associated with them, the reliability of this kind of support and more fundamentally, whether food banks represent a model of active and caring citizenship or a symbol of the collapse of the public safety net (or both).

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 05-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019

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