Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sweet Charity?

I recently read a thorough and insightful critique of hunger relief programs in the US – Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York.  Even though it was published in 1999, I was struck by how closely this work mirrors the much less formal observations we have made so far in our Facing Hunger in America project. If change has occurred, it has only amplified the issues Poppendieck raises.

As part of her work, Poppendieck describes what she calls “the seven deadly ‘ins’” of the emergency food system in the US. These can be read both as issues that all workers in emergency food struggle to overcome and as fundamental indictments of the whole approach to providing food to hungry Americans. The ‘ins’ are:
  • Insufficiency – all food banks, pantries, food distribution programs, and feeding programs struggle to maintain and provide enough food to meet the ever-expanding need. What they can provide is far below what recipients need to sustain themselves and their family.
  • Inappropriateness – food that is handed out to people can never be as good a match to what people of different cultures, tastes, and cooking abilities want as if they were able to shop for themselves.
  • Nutritional Inadequacy – food available for hunger relief tends to be skewed to the unhealthy, heavy on fats, sweets, and processed foods, light on meats, vegetables, and fresh produce.
  • Instability – food donations, government surpluses, public and private funding, and volunteer hours are all highly variable and unreliable.
  • Inaccessibility – access to emergency food is not tuned to the needs of an area. Instead, hunger relief programs typically begin when someone is moved to provide one. Wealthy communities may provide duplicate services, while remote and poverty-stricken areas may have little to offer.
  • Inefficiency – hunger relief programs do the best they can and try to deliver their food efficiently. But it is fundamentally a duplicate system that only works because it is operated largely by volunteers.
  • Indignity – providing charitable food necessarily creates an “us vs. them” dynamic.
After describing how attached we (as individuals, providers, corporations, and government) have become to the charitable food system, Poppendieck reflects, “… we must consider the possibility that emergency food actually contributes to the problem it tries to solve.” (p. 295) Even if we effectively mitigate all the ‘ins,’ we will not have created an effective way to provide healthy, affordable food to all. Instead, we will have institutionalized the inequality between providers and recipients, and we will have convinced ourselves and our children that providing food this way is an adequate response to the problem.

So what should we be doing? I wish Poppendieck had provided more discussion and a fuller set of examples. But her basic argument is that we must shift the balance from charity toward advocacy, from working to provide food to working to provide a just society.

“We need to imagine and then create a movement that will reduce poverty by helping us all, a movement that will integrate rather than segregate poor people, that will cast them in the role of our fellow workers for the greater good rather than grateful recipients of our exertions on their behalf.” (p. 316)

Do you know of effective programs focused on advocacy and grass-roots actions for a more equitable society?  Please share!

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