Sunday, February 06, 2005

What's Wrong with Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens?

On this Super Bowl Sunday (GO EAGLES!) when so many emergency food programs are organized, I thought this would be an appropriate blog posting:

I recently finished reading Janet Poppendieck's provocative book, Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (New York, Viking, 1998). Examining the proliferation of emergency food providers--i.e. food pantries, soup kitchens, etc.--in the U.S. since the early 1980s, Sweet Charity argues for a strong connection between the expansion of these kinds of programs and the continuing erosion of wages, jobs, and government entitlements for the working poor and unemployed. One's first reaction is likely to be, "Yes, I agree that the poor have been shafted during the past few decades, but aren't food pantries and soup kitchens part of the solution? What would poor people do without these resources?"

Or, at least that was my first reaction. And it has basically been the first reaction I have gotten from nearly everyone I have mentioned this book to. Just reading a few pages of the introduction, however, was enough to convince me that her argument has merit. She does a good job of making us all think about the bigger picture behind the individual acts of kindness involved in providing emergency food to hungry people in our society. Serving food to the hungry might provide us relief from the guilt we would otherwise feel about deprivation and inequality in such a wealthy society as ours. Nevertheless, Poppendieck does sympathize with emergency food staff and volunteers, and even provides lots of evidence that those at the heart of many such operations often share her views. That is, they can see that "emergency" food is not an emergency at all, but rather a substitute for dealing with the root causes of hunger, which would involve a more serious reckoning with poverty and economic inequality.

After the introduction, Poppendieck spends several chapters outlining the history of emergency food provision, emphasizing how it arose out of the economic downturn of the early 1980s and has just kept growing since then. But my favorite chapters were the last few, where she deals head on with what she sees as the main problems of emergency food: insufficiency, inappropriateness, nutritional inadequacy, instability, inaccessibility, inefficiency, and indignity. It is, in fact, the last of these--indignity--that Poppendieck dwells on the longest, and appropriately so. For receiving emergency food puts the poor at a profound distance from the rest of society, requiring that they supplicate themselves to the givers. A poignant moment in the book is when the author herself recounts being mistaken for a needy person at one point, and the shame she feels at that instant rings true: by "solving" poverty through emergency food, we in fact extract a tremendous wage of dignity from the poor.

Of course, the solution to the problem is not to just close down food pantries and soup kitchens. Such a move would be a short-term nightmare for the poor. (After all, Poppendieck herself admits that she has participated in such programs, as have I from time to time...) We can, on the other hand, work to oppose the notion that by providing emergency food we are somehow letting ourselves off the hook, opting for a "moral safety valve" in Poppendieck's apt words.

We must, therefore, view political action as made more necessary, not less, by the epidemic of emergency food operations. And I think this lesson can be applied to many other instances of charity or philanthropy in our society, such as homelessness or even aid to poorer countries in the world. (Oh, to think that we would have even gotten to the point of providing minimally adequate aid to the have-nots of the world...) Only when we refuse to view charity as a great noble act--and, after all, as Poppendieck points out, the majority of Americans do participate in emergency food provision in some way or another--and instead view it as a mimimal response to what is a much larger and morally serious problem, can we truly begin to talk about dealing with the great problems of the present age.

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