More Pressure Cooker: Food distribution to low-income families

Too many families in America do not get enough to eat. There are many ways to help reduce food insecurity, but these efforts, while beneficial, tend to be inadequate. Two weeks ago, I reviewed Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott. In that review I described the challenges parents, particularly mothers, face in trying to provide healthy meals for their children. This week I return to Pressure Cooker to discuss some alternate ways food is distributed in the country and problems associated with food justice. Quotes from the book are in bold followed by my responses:

“food justice involves more than just having access to fresh produce. Food justice is also about addressing deeper structural inequalities in a food system. Not only this, it prioritizes protecting the rights of marginalized people to ‘lead the movement to provide food for their community.’ ” (160) Members of the New Food Movement believe that access to healthy food should be a basic human right. The subquote above comes from a journal article on urban gardening (A). The series of posts on this site last month explore the complexity of this issue. In Pressure Cooker we learn of one neighborhood that becomes a food desert when their sole grocery store, a Kroger, closes. What are the obligations of local, state, and federal authorities to provide access to families who live in food deserts?

“Gaps in what we eat are tied to economic inequality, which has increased in the United States over the past several decades. Although money doesn’t determine what we eat, it has to do with it. In general, the more money a person spends on food, the heathier their diet is.” (221) With some exceptions, the general tenor of the book describes the healthiness or unhealthiness of diets rather than the healthiness or unhealthiness of specific foods. For families described in this book, the cost of food can be as high as 36% of their income. For many more affluent families it is less than 10% of income. I just checked, and my food expenditures for 2019 are a little less than 9%. The book goes into great detail for one woman’s trip to the supermarket to get the best deals with coupons and the use of her EBT (government assistance) card to be able to feed her family the healthiest diet possible. I feel sure that my diet would not be nearly as healthy if I had such little income that  36% of it was spent on food.

processed foods at the local food pantry
Food display in the deli section of our local food pantry

“Because food pantries rely on donations, the foods they distribute are often a random assortment. The quality of the food varies widely too. The pantries themselves are strapped, with many relying on volunteer labor. Most are severely constrained in their ability to distribute healthy food.” (177) Now we come to a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Each Monday evening I spend about 3½ hours at our local food pantry as the deli man. The numbers of items available at deli ranges from two to seven. The most popular foods I pass out are eggs and bacon; the least popular, hummus and French cheeses. Also popular are school lunch items such as Lunchables and Uncrustables (a processed, round, sealed, peanut butter-and jelly sandwich). I have a wide range of cheeses, other dairy products, sausages, packaged deli meats, meal kits and pizzas for my clients, most of whom are appreciative of what they can add to their cart. The meat guys who are located next to me pass on their specialty meats—chicken livers and gizzards, pork hocks and tails, turkey necks, and beef hearts which either attract or repel clients.

I am not so sure what the authors of Pressure Cooker mean by quality, but our pantry offers a wide variety of items from frozen and canned meats to tomato products, fruits, and vegetables to breakfast cereals and dried meals to sweet and salty snacks to peanut butter and jelly to breads and sweet desserts to fresh produce. I think that we provide enough food to supplement client purchases at stores as part of a healthy diet. At most stops clients have a choice of items, but they are limited to what is available at the time they come. Anyone on a restrictive diet will have trouble finding deli items to meet their needs. I try to look out for special needs of specific clients like one who prefers organic products and another who can eat chicken that is not spicy but must avoid most other meats. Most of our clients are women who serve as the main food preparer for a family. Many of them carefully choose the items that will meet the needs for individual members of the family.

assortment of items displayed in the deli section of the local food pantry
We distribute a wide variety of food items

“Charitable efforts work at the individual level, by serving as a ‘moral safety valve’ reducing people’s discomfort with seeing visible inequality and destitution. At the governmental level, these efforts work by making it easier for policymakers to shed responsibility for the poor.” (172) Pressure Cooker is not nearly so supportive of food pantries as my fellow volunteers and I are. The authors suggest that food pantries are actually an impediment to solving the problem of food justice. They appear to recommend closing food pantries down to pressure politicians to provide more support to individuals and families who are food insecure. It reminds me of calls in the 60s to take the money from the space program and give it to the poor. Government funding doesn’t work that way. In the last decade funds for the space program have been cut as have funds for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). I would love to see us eliminate all vestiges of food insecurity in the country, but I do not see shutting down food pantries as a solution. I only envision as much or more food insecurity in the future.

Another function of food pantries is that they provide an outlet for surplus food that would ordinarily go to waste. In recent months, we have had a surplus of fresh pork that we distribute frozen. We attribute this surplus, rightly or wrongly, to the current trade situation with China. Many of our deli items are also frozen and would not be offered for sale in that form in the supermarket. Breads and desserts that we receive are not spoiled but are close to the end of their shelf life. We are able to distribute large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, but some items are close to the end of edibility.

bacon in a box at the local food pantry
Frozen bacon is one our most popular items

It disturbed me greatly that much was made of government workers, particularly contract workers, were portrayed as being so greatly disadvantaged during the government shutdown at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. Video clips showing these employees at food pantries were considered to be humiliating. While I was personally against the shutdown, I don’t believe that clients of food pantries should be stigmatized.

meat products displayed at the local food pantry
Over half of our deli items are meats

“In order to qualify for these programs, people have to jump through lots of hoops: regularly reporting their income and changes in life’s circumstances, for example, or proving they are employed or actively looking for a job. To receive WIC, people must participate in regular weigh-ins and nutrition education sessions.” (187) Speaking of humiliation, the description of what one mother went through to maintain her child’s eligibility for WIC (Women Infants and Children) funds was disturbing. The mother must find time during the day, get off work, possibly take the child out of school to go through these sessions. We were informed that this location was actually better than other ones. As a privileged white male, I can’t imagine myself tolerating such hoops. The description of the visit also suggests that the interviewers who make these decisions are “typically overworked, inadequately trained, and poorly paid themselves.”

“The food on American’s tables would not be there if not for the many workers who do the invisible work of planting and picking fruits and vegetables, bagging and ringing up groceries, and cooking and serving foods at restaurants. Many of these workers are women of color. Ironically, working to get other people’s food on the table leaves them without enough money or time to feed their own families as they would like to.” (228) Not to mention the sorters, graders and packers at the packing facility or the forklift drivers, loaders and truck drivers before and after shipment to a large warehouse or all the workers in receiving, storage and preparation for shipment at these warehouses or everyone not in management responsible for the quality checks at each stage between the field and the point of sale or all the others I have left out along the way. As consumers we tend to think of the workers at each end of the chain with little appreciation for those in the middle.

fresh vegetables at the food pantry
Fresh produce is the last step at the food pantry

Most of us have little idea of how many laborers it takes to put fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables. That also goes for the workers who work in food processing plants that put together and process foods that are much more convenient to eat. Yes, some of processed foods are junk and do not contribute to a healthy diet, but not all processed foods are junk and not all junk foods are processed. I recently finished reading Immokalee Fields of Hope by Carlene A. Thissen. It describes how immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, many undocumented, were drawn to Immokalee, Florida, because that is where they could find work in the fields or packinghouses. Yes, the work was hard. No, these workers are not endowed with superhuman traits to make the work any easier. But much of the book was optimistic as many migrants were able to use their work in the fields as a stepping stone to a better life. I have incorporated a simple sentence into my table grace before my meals based on her recommendation:

“Thank you for this food, and for all those who brought it to our table.”

Bottom line. Government policies in the United States of America do not recognize food as a basic human right. We have too many food deserts in this country and too many families who are food insecure. As we seek food justice in our nation, let us respect the dignity of those who work to put food on our tables and those who struggle to provide a healthy diet for their families. Until then stopgaps such as food assistance, food banks and food pantries will be necessary.

Next week: Challenges to cooking while living through a home renovation


(A) Sisters of the soil: Urban gardening as resistance in Detroit. White, M.M. 2011. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Studies 5(1):13-28.

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