Give Someone a Fish? Part Two

In Part One of this blog, we discussed the adage: Give someone a fish, and they will eat for a day; teach someone to fish, give them a fishing pole, and they will eat for a lifetime. We then discussed some of the problematic American values, which reinforce this quote as the grounding philosophy for many social programs addressing poverty.

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond says people are not poor because they lack programs and services; people are poor because they lack power. As a society, we continue to develop programs to address poverty. We have more programs now than we ever did, and (using pre-COVID numbers) people are more impoverished now than they ever were. If more money spent on programs was the answer, why are we still dealing with such extreme poverty in our country? Surely, all these social programs would have eliminated poverty by now.

How you define the problem is how you will structure the solution. Social programs are designed to respond to identified societal challenges, and the detail all sits in that process of problem-identification. Let’s take food as an example. If, as a society, we would like to address food insecurity, we might develop a series of social programs to address it. There are three broad categories of social service programs – all of which are critical.

Transactional – “I need to give you some fish.” An example of a transactional food program is a food pantry. The identified problem is that people are not eating healthy because they don’t have adequate food access. The response is to provide food. It is critical because it gives quick access to a vital resource, and food is a fundamental human right. But the person will need the same help again tomorrow or next week. This type of program provides participants with the least amount of power and creates the most dependency. Yet, people must eat every day, and as a society, it is our responsibility to ensure they do.

Transitional – “I need to give you a fishing rod and teach you how to fish.” An example of a transitional food program is a nutrition training program. In such a program, participants learn to shop for, cook, and eat healthy food. The identified problem is that people do not have the knowledge, skills, or possibly values that will allow them to eat healthily. The response is to teach them. If the correct problem has been identified, people who previously did not eat healthily now have the knowledge (which is a form of power) and ability to do so. But what if not buying, cooking, and eating healthy food is more complicated than simply not knowing how (or desiring) to do it? What if there is a lack of access to healthy, affordable food in some communities? Will teaching people how to shop for and cook healthy food they cannot access solve the problem?

Transformative – “I can teach you how to fish and give you a fishing rod, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are no healthy fish to catch in this polluted pond. We need to work together to make our pond just as clean and stocked with fish as the other ponds across town.” An example of a transformative food program is one that works with community residents to advocate for access to healthy, affordable food in their community. The identified problem is that our society has so discarded some communities that we have not provided access to healthy, nutritious food, so our lawmakers need to be called to account. Such a program might encourage residents to work together to hold local elected officials accountable and fight for legislation to provide enough grocery stores in a community to serve all its residents. This type of program is where participants have the most power because they identify the problem, design a solution, and execute the intervention. This type of program supports participants in changing their own communities to be better prepared to respond directly to the next identified problem.

As you can probably see, all three types of programs are critical, but only the last transforms communities. Unfortunately, because transformation is difficult to measure, most funders prefer to support programs where it is possible to report how many pounds of food the program delivered to community members or how many people went through a nutrition program. These are measurable but not particularly meaningful objectives.

A few years ago, one of my children came home upset by a research article his teacher assigned at school. He kept saying, “Something is wrong with this article, Mommy, but I just don’t know how to describe it.” The article discussed eating habits among Black people and talked about how most Black people eat highly fatty, salty, and sweet foods, resulting in obesity, heart disease, and other illnesses. The article then suggested that Black people should learn more about purchasing and preparing healthy foods to combat these diseases. Nowhere in this article was there any mention that predominantly Black neighborhoods have significantly fewer grocery stores than predominantly white neighborhoods. Add to that the lack of infrastructure in predominantly Black communities that creates barriers to employment and transportation, and you can see how research like this continues to blame the victims and perpetuate inaccurate problem-identification.

If the real food problem in many communities is lack of access, then distributing food and teaching people to shop and cook are short-term, woefully inadequate solutions. Only increasing the availability of and access to food solves the problem, but that is not where we, as a society, spend most of our food-focused philanthropic dollars. And transforming communities so that they respond to actual problems, as opposed to theoretical problems, is not our society’s standard response to poverty.

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