Plenty of Food for Thought

I just finished Janet Poppendieck’s book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, and as I expected, in the end, we were not too far apart on our assessment of emergency food and the role it plays in assisting the food insecure.  That said, she did introduce issues I had not previously considered and challenged the way in which I had thought about certain aspects of providing emergency food.  Poppendieck contends that emergency food organizations, like soup kitchens and food banks, are run by caring and compassionate staff and volunteers who are committed to providing food to those who are hungry.  In today’s world such people and organizations are a necessity, but she also argues that these same organizations enable the cycle of hunger to continue.  By participating in providing emergency food, either through volunteering or donating, Americans may feel like they are solving a problem.  In reality, providing emergency food diverts our attention from larger societal problems like poverty and inequality and keeps us from working toward solutions to these problems for which hunger is just a symptom.food pantry open sign

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book Poppendieck discusses what is wrong with emergency food.   As someone who recently became a volunteer in two food pantries and who has felt positive about my experiences and effort, I was curious about what she would identify as shortcomings.  Listed below are the “7 Deadly ‘Ins’” of emergency food Poppendieck has identified.

  • Insufficiency—Emergency food organizations often have to limit the frequency with which clients can come to the food pantry, whether there is a waiting list for service, and the amount of food distributed to each client.
  • Inappropriateness–Emergency food organizations can not possibly have enough items to satisfy the preferences or special dietary needs of every client.  Both pantries in which I volunteer stock vegetarian beans, a commodity from the Federal government.  Very few clients take these beans and most universally say they taste terrible.  Additionally, emergency food rarely is appropriate for diabetics or sufferers of high blood pressure, obesity or heart disease.
  • Nutritional Inadequacy–As touched upon above, many food offerings through emergency food agencies are high in sodium, fats, and sugar.  There is very little fresh produce available and often several of the meats offered are processed items like hot dogs, chicken tenders and lunch meat.
  • Instability–The provision of emergency food relies on surplus food from the government and sometimes businesses, donations from the public and a volunteer workforce.  All of these components are subject to fluctuations, causing instability in providing emergency food.
  • Inaccessibility–Emergency food offerings differ with location.  For instance, urban areas tend to have more emergency food options, like food banks and soup kitchens, where more rural areas may have only one or no options.  Additionally affecting emergency food’s accessibility is the emergency food organization’s hours of operation and proximity to public transportation.
  • Inefficiency–Distribution of emergency food duplicates the food delivery system already in place.  Often as emergency food distribution agencies increase, inner cities experience a decline in the availability of markets and grocery stores.  Additionally, emergency food may seem efficient, but these agencies do not count as an expense anything that is donated, including food, equipment, storage buildings, and labor from volunteers.
  • Indignity–Distributing emergency food through food banks, pantries and soup kitchens forces those receiving assistance to be segregated from the rest of society.  They must go to a place different from where the rest of society gets their food. soup kitchen line

As I thought about these “7 deadly ‘ins'” as they related to my volunteering experience I realized I had witnessed every single one.  I believe both food pantries in which I volunteer do the very best they can with what they have to offer.  Without them, the clients would be in a much worse situation; however, I believe the increased reliance on emergency food to assist these clients is an inadequate solution to the problem they face.

In spite of the shortfalls of emergency food, Poppendieck also addresses its success, and more importantly, the price of its success.  The 1980s, when cuts were made in funding public assistance programs, saw a dramatic rise in emergency food providers, an increase that has continued until today.  As these agencies proliferated, they became extremely successful at operating, stretching whatever they got, making it work.  They highlight these successes when they fundraise or ask for donations to assure donors their donations won’t be squandered.  Infood drive turn government can rationalize further cuts in public assistance because emergency food providers are so competent in handling the situation.  Emergency food provision as enabler for further governmental reduction in public assistance is a new and troubling concept for me.

At the very end of her book, Janet Poppendieck asks what emergency food providers are to do.  She outlines a couple of options, but the one that resonated the most with me was to organize and educate, especially the educate part.  I believe we need to talk about hunger within the broader context of poverty and inequality.  While continuing to provide the best assistance that can be provided, emergency food providers need to be honest with the public, that at best, they are a Band-Aid to the problem of hunger and only through addressing the larger societal issues of poverty and inequality can the numbers of people experiencing food insecurity be diminished.

One last point I would like to make is that at no time does Janet Poppendieck disparage emergency food providers or the assistance they provide.  She acknowledges their monumental effort and that without their services the hungry of the United State would be in much worse circumstances.

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