How Chefs Are Fighting Hunger

Chefs have long led the way in fighting the battle to end hunger. But what else can be done?

There seems nothing in the world more natural or right that chefs would feed the hungry. The modern chef, whose métier is the difference between food as entertainment and food for survival, feeds the 1 percent. It would be obscene if he or she was to ignore the other germane percentages: the 19 percent of New York City children who face food insecurity, the 13 percent of Americans who do or the 1.4 million New Yorkers living in food-insecure households. And so, what one hand sous-vides, the other offers to those in need. Certainly this is true in New York City and among the so-called big-name chefs whose faces might as well be carved into the basalt of the Palisades in a culinary Mount Rushmore: Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, David Chang and chef-ish Danny Meyer.

Each of these chefs, and many, many others, devote at least some part of their time and some portion of their capital to philanthropic and charitable endeavors centered around hunger. Anyone even vaguely aware of the restaurant world is familiar with the big players: Organizations like No Kid Hungry, City Harvest and Food Bank for New York City all do great work with great visibility and strong industry participation.

Because it is a good thing and technically, if not karmically, optional, charitable giving is often shielded from critical inquiry. Though it feels, frankly, uncharitable to judge extra credit, might we measure the charitable and philanthropic actions of chefs not in additive terms but in subtractive ones instead? What if the measure were not how much better they are doing than they need to but how much worse are they doing than they could?

Archives of IRS Forms 990 are the playpen for the amateur accountant with a cynical nose. It's easy and fun to get stuck in the weeds of financial disclosures 501(c)(3) organizations are required to file with the federal government. Ample, free and easy to navigate are the resources that allow those who desire to dig deep into the revenues, assets, liabilities, salaries and grants of most charities. The paperwork is a gas, but those are trees and we're into forests. Though there is much to learn, tools like Charity Navigator and GuideStar aren't concerned with the mission of a nonprofit organization but the execution of that mission. Who to help and how is a much more profound question.

It seems a given that chefs should remedy hunger. In charitable work, the donor often supports causes close to his or her work. Successful artists support the un-arted; established designers clothe the naked; chefs feed the hungry.

This sense of professional proximity extends geographically as well. Thus, many chefs support charities that focus on helping those in their local communities. Often, of course, community work is the work to do. It is certainly seductive to see the fruit of one's work, charitable or otherwise, and when it comes to something perishable like food, the logistics are inarguably sensical. This underpins the wonderful work organizations like City Harvest do.

That organization has its roots in 1981, when a former restaurant manager and truck driver named Helen verDuin Palit wandered from the New Haven soup kitchen she was running into a bar across the street for a margarita. "It was one of those days," she tells me. She ended up eating potato skins and wondering what happened to the potato inside. "That appetizer changed my life," she says. She asked the chef, and a short while later, there were 30 gallons of potato insides for her guests at the Dwight Hall Soup Kitchen. Thus was born the New Haven Salvage Project, which became City Harvest in New York, then America Harvest, and today is active in more than 8,000 cities worldwide.

Obviously, facilitating the recovery of food that otherwise would be wasted is expressly the domain of chefs. But though the idea began with a restaurant, the majority of City Harvest's rescued food comes from manufacturers and other companies.

What City Harvest offers more importantly are services and logistical support that government is ill-suited to undertake. It is up to nongovernmental organizations like City Harvest to coordinate food recovery. This point is a very useful one when considering what to support and how: If these charitable organizations were not to exist, who could or would step in?

The case for City Harvest is clear. But what about organizations like Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry or Food Bank of New York, which warehouses and distributes food for nearly 1.5 million New Yorkers a year, or Citymeals on Wheels, which provides nearly 2 million meals annually to 18,000 homebound seniors in the city. Though ours is a terribly unequal economy, there is nevertheless a very strong social net.

"Feeding people in New York City is great, but there's no way it can be a solution to hunger," Andrea Tamburini, the president and CEO of Action Against Hunger-USA, tells me. Moreover, Tamburini notes, as opposed to the United States, there are places where the organization, whose mission is to "[save] lives while building long-term strategies for self-sufficiency," is active—like Nigeria, South Sudan, the DRC, Syria, Pakistan and India—but there is no social net to catch those who struggle with hunger. "In many of these communities," he says, "we're the last resort."

Though delivering lifesaving food is indeed a large part of ACF—the organization was founded in 1979 by a bunch of French intellectuals, so the name is technically Action Contre la Faim—the lion's share is the very unphotogenic, very boring, very vital policy, advocacy and evaluative work. "Hunger is complicated," Tamburini says, "nutrition is an orphan topic. It sits at the intersections of health, economics and agriculture." Hunger, like almost everything or nothing at all, will likely be solved by meetings.

Admittedly, giving money to an organization that facilitates nutrition causal analyses in countries you're unlikely ever to visit to a population you're unlikely ever to see lacks that certain satisfying snap of giving a dinner to those closer to home. The impact, though greater, is farther away, and the law of perspective therefore dictates that it seems small. But the question of charity isn't how it makes the donor feel but what effect it actually has. A dinner here or a life there, a patch on a problem or the risky surgery of systemic change. Neither are bad, nor are they equal.  Each deserves a place at the table.