No, I don’t mean baseball! I have just started reading a book entitled Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet Poppendieck. In this book she contends that so many Americans participate in the fight to end hunger by donating to or volunteering in soup kitchens or food banks and pantries that it has become a national pastime. Poppendieck chronicles the increased reliance on charity as a response to poverty and hunger in the United States, while noting the erosion of government provided assistance. She contends that this resurgence in charity is a Band-Aid approach to ending poverty and hunger and is not the positive force it appears to be at first glance.
Her argument is two-fold. First she states that America soundly rejected this form of poverty remediation over half a century ago. Private charitable organizations, Poppendieck suggests, are inefficient and vary from location to location in the amount of assistance they provide. She further states that serving meals and distributing groceries is inadequate assistance and serves to separate and segregate those in poverty from the rest of society.
The second point in Poppendieck’s argument is that participating in a charitable response to hunger and poverty diverts our attention from an actual solution to poverty in America. Volunteering in and donating to charitable food distribution organizations, she contends, makes many Americans feel good and gives them a sense that the hunger problem is being addressed. Poppendieck suggests that all this goodwill Americans feel prevents us from working to implement national policies with the goal of truly ending poverty and hunger in America.
As someone who has just committed a large amount of my time to volunteering in food pantries and working to fill some of the gaps that exist in assisting the food insecure, I was taken aback by the notion that I might be doing more harm than good. I am, however, intrigued by what she has to say. I have a feeling in the end we will not be too far apart on our assessment of the situation and what needs to occur to eliminate food insecurity in the United States. That said, I do think this book will at times challenge my beliefs and opinions.
I think it is healthy to challenge the beliefs we hold, be they religious, political, or philosophical. Part of the problem we face in the United States today stems from the fact that people surround themselves with information and people that reinforce their belief structure. But that is a whole other discussion and one I don’t plan to undertake on this blog. As I stated, I have just started reading the book, but I will share with you my thoughts on the topic and the book when I am done. I am curious to see how or if it will alter the course of my journey to assist the food insecure.
I would be interested in your initial response to Poppendieck’s premise, or if you have read the book, what you thought about it.
Maybe reading the book would challenge my thinking, but my initial response is that helping those in need on a grass roots level would be more effective than a top down approach, which is usually a one size fits all approach. Food banks, soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels, and those who hand out food on the streets make a difference to those they serve. Often times these charties have knowledgeable people available who can help those in need get support or assistance in other ways. And many are very needed when SNAP or WIC benefits run out part way through the month or when someone can’t get those. I’m not saying a top down approach isn’t needed – I do believe WIC and SNAP are very successful programs. I just disagree that charity is not making a significant impact. I’d be interested to know what the author is suggesting as a means to end poverty. Guess I’ll have to add the book to my reading list 😉
I’m glad you have joined us. I knew I could count on your insightful comments! I totally agree with you that these charitable organizations are making a significant impact and I think Janet Poppendieck would too. Again I am only at the beginning of the book, so I am hesitant to say definitively what all her points are, but I will give a sense of what I am gathering so far. What I think she is mainly saying is that these organizations have taken over, through necessity, the heavy lifting of assisting those in poverty and that was not intended as their purpose. Furthermore, the good will we feel as we volunteer or donate, she feels, may prevent us from truly examining the depths of the problem and working to create policies that make this assistance or any assistance less necessary.
I will also say that through my volunteering experiences I can see some deficiencies in relying on food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens to fill in the gaps. This is through no fault of the organization. They are doing wonderful work. There are just limitations to what they can do or are permitted to do.