Feeding the Other: Whiteness Privilege and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries

Rebecca de Souza is a middle-class Indian immigrant living in Duluth, Minnesota. She writes a harsh critique of food pantries and the volunteers who work in them. Feeding the Other characterizes the ubiquitous pantries that dot the American landscape. It concludes that these pantries are  part of the hunger problem rather than part of its solution. The author advocates radical change in the American food system. She seeks to start her revolution of American food distribution through pantry workers. I read her book as a dedicated volunteer in our local food pantry until the pandemic struck. I disagree with many of her viewpoints. I challenge many of her assumptions and prescriptions. The questions I kept asking myself throughout the book was

Is the author an outsider who is able to see food injustice in America from a fresh perspective?

OR

Is she someone who ignores our culture to propose solutions that do not address our problems?

The latter criticism faces Americans abroad seeking to improve native conditions Failure to appreciate foreign cultures hampers effectiveness of such efforts.

I found out much about myself as I read the book. I knew that I was white, but I didn’t know that I was a neoliberal. Or am I? In this review I will attempt to present the author’s point of view without contamination of my ideas. Next week I will rebut that point of view and offer my perspective. I direct interested readers to the author’s website and her perspective on the book. As is my tradition in reviewing a book I will start with her words in bold and provide some context.

Neoliberal

“Neoliberal stigma is a type of political economic stigma that distinguishes between Us and Them based on values of individualism, hard work, and personal responsibility. The tension at the heart of neoliberal stigma is captured in the belief that there is a category of people who ‘do not want to work or and will not work.’ ” (p.70) To understand the book, we need to clarify some keywords. Neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human wellbeing can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (1). In the book the author regards almost everyone who values free-market capitalism as a neoliberal. At times, she is most frustrated with liberals who are not progressive enough. She singles out food pantry volunteers as neoliberals. Food pantries are part of a corrupt commercial enterprise that creates hunger.   

Stigma

“The gospel of prosperity has a long history of stigmatizing the poor (intentionally and unintentionally) by proposing a direct relationship among the attainment of one’s goals, material success, and belief in Christ.” (p.61) The next term requiring clarification is stigma. A brief glance at the book’s title suggests that neoliberals are stigmatized. No, it is the neoliberals who stigmatize the poor. Neoliberals believe that “laziness and irresponsibility as the true causes of poverty” (p.64). Despite best intentions, pantry volunteers look down on clients and see “The Other” as objects of pity. The author bases her observations by studying two food pantries in Duluth. Her passion is to seek food justice for all. Too many Americans are hungry and food insecure. Poverty in the country is rooted in racial injustice. De Souza proclaims that everyone has a right to sufficient food. She points to Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services . . .”  

It is obvious that America is nowhere near achieving this goal. The book declares that food pantries are a roadblock and not a pathway to achieving this goal.

She notes that the poor don’t catch a break. They are the object of pity rather than a recipient of opportunities. Food pantry volunteers provide food for the homeless and food insecure, but they don’t see what else their clients must face. Bureaucrats charged with helping the poor tend to stand in their way.

Whiteness

 “Companies benefit from cheap labor, consumers benefit from cheap food prices, and the hunger industrial complex benefits from the surplus food that is created, which good whites get to dole out.” (p. 149) De Souza describes a vicious cycle that benefits middle-class whiteness. These benefits come at the expense of impoverished minorities. The statement gets to the heart of her argument about the American food system. Instead of helping the poor, food pantries create a demand for surplus food. She labels this entity as the hunger industrial complex. Pantries do not solve the problem of social injustice. They make it worse. The problem starts in the field with substandard wages for migrant labor. Food for profit, in her estimation, distorts the prices of healthy foods. Income inequality limits access to daily necessities. The poor find themselves in an untenable situation. They lack the benefits of education and opportunity afforded the white community.

photos of chicken tortilla soup, risotto bowls and simple eats on a food pantry shelf
Choices of industrial foods offered in the deli section of a food pantry.

Industrial food

“Why do we distribute food we would not eat ourselves?” (p. 100) The book doesn’t have anything good to say about industrial food. The term encompasses processed and packaged food distributed at pantries. The author does not appear to eat processed food. Her attitude is that such food is unhealthy. Clients deserve better treatment. The poor need more entitlements to provide healthier food for themselves. She recommends a diet of fresh, whole, and organic food. Unfortunately, this diet is too expensive for poor people. Everyone should be able to eat the same types of food. Clients, though, like brand-name food because it “makes them feel normal and mainstream.” A country that is as wealthy as America should not have as many people who are food insecure. Food choice should determine what people eat. It was unclear whether health considerations or desire should prevail. Food pantry clients have limited choices in their selections. Thus, it is important that healthy food is available for clients.

photo of lettuce, spinach and other fresh vegetables all packaged in plastic
Fresh produce also available at the food pantry.

Food system

“food pantries are small actors in a much larger and unwieldy food system in which the biggest players are federal and state governments, multinational corporations, and transnational agencies and organizations.” (p.40) De Souza decries the broken food system in the country. As noted above she sees food pantries as part of the problem and not part of the solution. She also sees food pantries as the lynchpin to induce change in the system. She advocates that pantry volunteers become agents of change to the food system. At present they are passive distributors of surplus food. She envisions volunteers speaking out about food injustice in their churches and communities. There are so many pantries and volunteers across the country. They should mobilize by taking the ideas in this book and evangelizing the message. This approach could break down barriers. Changes in government, the corporate world, and international organizations would follow their lead.

Capitalism

“The hunger industrial complex runs on surplus food created by capitalist modes of production; indeed, the food system is set up to produce excess food and then redistribute it to the hungry.” (p. 163). Feeding the Other blames capitalism for breaking the food system. It is not clear whether the author means all capitalist enterprises or only large corporations. It is clear that neoliberals are too supportive of American capitalism. It is never clear if the author embraces socialism to the exclusion of capitalism. Pantries “prop up the capitalist food system.” They place limits on the food that they disburse to the clients. They also set eligibility requirements for people who can take part. The book refers these practices as the “scarcity model.” Pantries are too concerned about client fraud. They are not concerned enough about feeding everyone who needs food. The author puzzles throughout the book on American obsession with work. Volunteers appear to value employed clients over those who do not work. She also portrays the relationship between volunteers and clients as Us vs. Them.

Conclusion. I distilled the message in Feeding the Other down to six keywords. Neoliberals reject the welfare state. They embrace capitalism which leaves food pantries to disperse its leftovers. Pantry volunteers stigmatize the hungry and food insecure they serve. People of color predominate pantry clientele. Whiteness prevails among the volunteers and sets the rules. Food pantries distribute industrial food that contributes to poor health. Thus, these pantries are at the endpoint of a corrupt, broken food system. The author urges us to become radical, advocates of change. We should speak out at our churches and communities to fight these inequities.

I reject much of this message. My experiences at two food distribution sites are at odds with many of her observations. Her shaming of volunteers at these locations hurts me. My hurt feelings are not only for myself but for my many colleagues who give of their time and talents to help. Too often Dr. de Souza assumes the role of an outsider to condemn an American institution. She fails to understand key aspects of our culture. She does not appreciate the Protestant work ethic ingrained in the American soul. She does not see why we place so much value on having a job. She also does not comprehend American political economics. Competing liberal and conservative economics have guided policy for over 90 years. We are a capitalist nation that adopts vestiges of socialism with great reluctance.

And yet, Professor de Souza points out some flaws in our society that many of us do not wish to recognize. She immigrated to Indiana from India to attend graduate school.  Her upbringing allows her to view food pantries through fresh eyes. Food distribution in our country is unfair. Lack of food access relates to discriminatory patterns that many of us do not wish to face or correct. Food pantries do not really solve the problems of hunger and food insecurity. Rather, they attempt to match people who cannot feed themselves with food that did not sell. Can’t a wealthy nation do better by its people? Next week I will address these keywords from a volunteer’s point of view.

Next week: In defense of food pantries    

References:

(1) Harvey, D. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. London: Oxford University Press.

8 thoughts on “Feeding the Other: Whiteness Privilege and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries

  1. Worth discussing and reading, thank you. She (and some others) do not consider cultural evolution, which works like Darwin only much faster and never stops.
    We also have economies of scale allowing wider distribution and lower prices as long as we have free competition and functional regulation, which in turn depends on democratically elected governments.
    Humans are essentially amoral. We start out life in need of unexplained authority and have to learn logic and cause-effect (science) later, and always need belief in the impossible to manage fears of death. In terms of the Protestant ethic which you (correctly) cite,
    “you never learned to manage time
    by counting the minutes that equal a dime.”

    Like

  2. NEOLIBERAL?

    On Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 11:52 AM In Defense of Processed Food wrote:

    > processedfoodsite posted: ” Rebecca de Souza is a middle-class Indian > immigrant living in Duluth, Minnesota. She writes a harsh critique of food > pantries and the volunteers who work in them. Feeding the Other > characterizes the ubiquitous pantries that dot the American lan” >

    Like

    1. It was a new term to me, but I have come across it a few time since then. It seems to translate most closely to economically conservative. Neoliberals like the economics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronal Reagan,

      Like

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