In defense of food pantries

“Equality if the mother of justice . . . Justice is the offspring of equality.” –Philo of Alexandria

cars in line for pickup at a food pantry
Cars lining up for contactless food pickup. Photo by Roberta Parillo.

Rebecca de Souza criticized food pantries and the volunteers who inhabit them in Feeding the Other. Today’s blog is a direct response to those criticisms.  She studied two very different food pantries in Duluth, Minnesota. The book relates what she learned. I volunteered at a monthly food distribution location in rural Georgia the year after I retired. I then moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida and became a volunteer at a local food pantry. De Souza and I came away with very different views on food pantries. My mission was to feed the needy. Her mission was to start a revolution in pantries to remake the American food system.

Hunger and food insecurity are real in the United States of America. De Souza raises some challenging questions:

    • Are food pantries alleviating hunger or making it worse?
    • What rights should the hungry and food insecure have in society?
    • What is the best way to alleviate hunger and food insecurity?
    • Can racial justice be improved through improved food distribution?

See my responses at the end of the post.

WARNING: I try to avoid direct political content on this site, but this topic has strong, political overtones. It becomes necessary to reveal some of my political perspective. If you have had enough politics for a while, you may wish to skip this post. I welcome comments, but I ask you to stick to the topic and not turn this site into a political battleground.

In my review of Feeding the Other, I extracted six keywords. In the review, I attempted to explain her point of view. Today I react to those concepts.

industrial food

Rebecca De Souza’s disdain for industrial food permeates the book. Volunteers at the pantries she observes distribute processed food to their clients. She claims that the volunteers would not eat this industrial food themselves. Not so at the food pantry where I worked. I eat processed food. My colleagues eat processed food. We also eat fresh, whole food. Industrial food is what Americans eat. An estimated 60% of the calories in the American diet comes from ultra-processed foods. These products are not something we turn our noses up at. This blog sets out to defend industrial food. Processed foods are good for sustainability. Food processing extends shelf life of food to decrease food waste. Processing removes inedible portions of whole foods and ingredients to prevent their shipment Some processed foods are unhealthy, particularly when consumed to excess. Critics exaggerate the dangers of processed foods. Not all processed foods are junk foods. Not all junk foods are processed.

capitalism

The United States of America is a capitalist country. The recent election did not reject capitalism. The country has a tradition of veering between two economic philosophies. One party supports the economics of deficit spending to reduce unemployment and achieve social goals. The other party advocates limited government and lower taxes. The public favors large outlays of public spending until policies begin to look like socialism. It turns to lower taxes and smaller government until policies begin to look like libertarianism. Programs like Social Security and Medicare overcame socialistic labels before becoming popular entitlements. I suspect efforts to turn us into a socialistic or libertarian economy will fail. That means any solution to food distribution must encompass capitalism.

food system

We hear about broken systems in America these days from food to justice to political. I agree with Rachel Laudan that there is no food system in America. Let’s look at three online definitions of a system

A. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

B. A set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.

C. the system— The prevailing political or social order, especially when regarded as oppressive and intransigent.

Definitions A and B do not apply as there is no organization or external structure to food distribution. There are no sets of uniform rules or principles. Money dictates success or failure. De Souza is right that food pantries are a product of capitalism. She is also right that the poor are disadvantaged when it comes to access to fresh food. She is wrong when she labels it a “broken system.” It is not a system. Simple solutions will not fix it. That is, unless she is talking about The Food System. Or what we called The Man back in the 60s.

My favorite system is the Lee County Library System. It has an organizational structure and a way to make and implement change. As a dedicated reader I am very happy with the service they provide. If they had a policy I did not like, I could hunt down a person in the system to recommend a change. If I was not happy with the response, I could go on social media or to commercial media to express my displeasure. I could marshal a group of people who could bring about change.

What could we do to improve access to fresh food in poor, Black neighborhoods? Ashanté Reese describes an unSafeway in a DC neighborhood. The supermarket does not meet the needs of its community. Activists in the neighborhood could try to get that supermarket to change its ways. If unresponsive, they could use the same tactics I described above for the Library System. But a successful campaign would lead to improved access only in that community. Gains would not extend to the nation, the Delmarva region or even across Washington, DC. Focusing attention on a specific aspect of food maldistribution makes more sense. Burning The System down and building a new one is not the answer. It would likely create many more problems than it would solve. And until we become a socialist nation, excluding capitalism is a nonstarter. Government-funded capitalism is not always bad. Take the progress made to this point towards a coronavirus vaccine. Without that partnership, we would face an even bleaker future.

whiteness

I am white and believe, due the color of my skin, I have some inherent advantages over people of color. My family migrated from Canada when I was in middle school. I became a naturalized American citizen when I was in college. My skin color gives me an advantage over natural-born citizens of color. The best explanation I have seen for white privilege is from Kirsten Gillibrand. I believe that the criminal justice favors white people over Black and brown people.

Black Lives Matter is attracting more attention from the white community since the killing of George Floyd. Will that lead to more racial justice in this country? I hope so, but we won’t know the answer for several years. At first the protests were about confederate monuments. There were initial calls for the renaming Lee County. Calusa County was the most common recommendation. I am not sure that naming the county after a lost tribe of Native Americans is more politically correct than for a confederate general. To get to the food pantry I travel Summerlin Road to Fort Myers. Jacob Summerlin was a cattle baron and a major supplier of beef to the Confederacy in Florida. Colonel Abraham Myers was the Quartermaster General of Confederate States Army. Are we really interested in history or just symbols?

George Floyd died in vain if all Black America gets is the dismantling of confederate war monuments. I lived through the 60s and welcomed passage of the Voting Rights Act. My hero is John Lewis. The Act he championed allowed many Southern Blacks to vote. More recent rulings by the Supreme Court and acts by Congress have walked back some of those advances. Racial Justice in the country demands changes in laws and police practices. It goes far beyond how clients are viewed in food pantries.

stigma

I know that many Americans stigmatize the poor. Such stigma occurs by race, gender, state of employment, and many other stereotypes. I also know that many Americans do not stigmatize the poor. I work hard in my life not to stigmatize others. I believe in respecting the person regardless of their circumstance.  I see very little stigmatization of clients among pantry volunteers. It may be there, but I don’t see it. I realize that I will never know what our clients face in their lives. All I can do is help supplement the food they have on hand to improve at least a little their food security. I confess to being more comfortable working in a food pantry setting than one-on-one. I have tried to help individuals at least six times in my life. I have failed miserably every time. In an organized activity I feel more effective at meeting personal needs.

ballcap for the local hokey team
Florida Everblades ballcap.

I remember one couple that came to the pantry regularly. The man would put certain items in the buggy. His wife would take them out and give them back to me. One evening he noticed that I had on my Florida Everblades ballcap. He commented on how he liked hockey, but the tickets were too expensive. I considered inviting him to be my guest to go to a game. I never did. I regret that I did not try. A few months later his wife came to the pantry alone. A few months after that neither one showed up. Could I have made a difference in their lives? Maybe. Maybe not. I will never know.

neoliberal

I can’t wrap my head around what a neoliberal is. From everything I read I know that it is a derisive term. I am not sure if I am a neoliberal. A key characteristic of a neoliberal is abhorrence of the welfare state. I believe that everyone who has the ability to work and the opportunity to work should work if adequately compensated and treated fairly. Employers should pay workers a living wage. Society should help people who are unable to work. It should provide food assistance to those who cannot feed themselves or their families. SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) is a program that helps meet the needs of the nation’s hungry. As constructed, it is inadequate. Food pantries help supplement those needs. If those beliefs classify me as a neoliberal, I guess I am one. If they disqualify me, then I am not one.

Rebecca de Souza paints a nice picture of the poor in Feeding the Other. She describes the diversity of food pantry clients. She personalizes their challenges and their needs. She stereotypes pantry volunteers as white do-gooders who disdain their clients. I am sure that there are some volunteers in Duluth and Fort Myers who fit that description. There are also many volunteers who are compassionate about the injustices the poor face when it comes to feeding their families. They feel powerless to change “the system.” Many volunteers dismay at cuts in SNAP benefits. Today’s challenges are even greater now with layoffs, evictions, and small-business failures brought on by the pandemic.

Roberta Parillo perhaps said it best in a message to me

“I wish that we did not have to have food pantries and I wish that everyone had a nice place to live, but that is not the world we live in.  You and I both know that the food we give out is not always perfect, but we always make sure that it is fit to eat.  Food pantries are meant to supplement our client’s food, but unfortunately it is often their main source of food.”

Some answers

Are food pantries alleviating hunger or making it worse? I believe that they are alleviating hunger. Our clients know that we will be there every Monday. Sure, more direct food aid would decrease food insecurity in the country. I hope that it will happen, but I am not optimistic. If we shut down all the food pantries tomorrow, would the masses rise up and demand that we provide more food aid? I doubt it. A quarter of a million deaths due to CoVID-19 hasn’t mobilized the American people to stop the pandemic. Why would a few hundred thousand deaths in the street due to starvation result in a greater response?

What rights should the hungry and food insecure have in society? I don’t have a definitive answer. The ideal stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is aspirational but unachievable. I would like to see enough food made available to enough people to allow every child to grow up to meet their potential in life.

What is the best way to alleviate hunger and food insecurity? Guarantee a living wage for everyone who is able to work and find a job. Pursue economic policies that seek full employment. Provide food assistance to those who are unable to work. Ensure that children of families with inadequate income have enough food. Provide access to fresh, whole foods in food deserts/swamps. Continue to support soup kitchens, food pantries and other ways that help supplement that food assistance for those who need it.

Can racial justice be improved through improved food distribution? This premise is advanced in Feeding the Other. Maybe, but improving racial justice in the country through new laws and regulations is more likely to lead to improvement of food justice. We all need to value other people regardless of their differences from us.

I reject the labels we put on each other and the stigma that goes with them. In this holiday season let’s work together to help others. Reach out to the poor. Volunteer in a nearby food pantry, soup kitchen, or other social service activity. If you wish to opt out, make a contribution to groups that serve others or causes that advocate for food justice. Thank those who are volunteering in efforts to make food more available. Write to your federal, state, or local officials advocating for your causes. Don’t just sit there and complain. Do something.

Happy holidays!

Next week: Why I volunteer at the food pantry by Roberta Parillo

5 thoughts on “In defense of food pantries

  1. chanukah begins thursday — eat latkes: how many ingredients? ultraprocessed? healthy? junk? not new (about 2200 years old); certainly traditional dripping with oil!

    Like

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