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sweet charity?: emergency food and the end of entitlement

by leslie mikkelsen
director of project development, prevention institute

"this is an important book," said the sales clerk as he rang up my purchase of sweet charity?: emergency food and the end of entitlement by jan poppendieck. surprised to hear such a comment about a book i expected to be of interest primarily to anti-hunger activists and food policy analysts, i asked him to elaborate. it turned out that the sales clerk had served as interim director of a food pantry in vermont, and in his eight months had decided that food distribution was not the best method for dealing with the underlying economic issues faced by his organization's clients.

this was a fitting start to my reading of sweet charity?, a history and analysis of the growth and policy implications of the emergency food system in the united states. one point poppendieck drives home is just how widespread involvement in the charitable system of food distribution has become. from the church auxiliary running a hot meal or food bag program, to food corporations who benefit from tax write-offs, to the fans bringing canned food to sporting events, to the usda which expanded commodity distribution as food stamps were cut, and even to prisoners providing free labor for gleaning, everyone seems to have a role to play in this "anti-hunger" movement.




poppendieck seeks to understand "how soup kitchens and food pantries became the response of choice to the escalating needs unleashed by the recession of the early 1980's." this reliance on charity exists in stark contrast to food assistance policy during the great depression, when public outcry and strong advocacy replaced soup kitchens and bread lines with cash relief, and later work relief and social insurance. sweet charity? carefully chronicles the many facets of emergency food distribution in the united states and challenges us to consider whether this should be considered the most effective response to hunger in the united states.

this insight was developed through many hours of interviews and participant observation in soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks across the country. poppendieck analyzes the forces motivating the individuals she meets to explain what has driven the emergence and institutionalization of such a large charitable force, and what this involvement costs at the expense of broader social activism.

by defining the problem as hunger the "emergency food system is helping to direct our attention away from the more fundamental problem of poverty, and the even more basic problem of inequality" however, while they don't solve deeper problems private food assistance programs do fill an immediate need. it is another manifestation of a perennial dilemma for social activists. do we take the moral high ground, fighting for fundamental change, and ignore the plight of those who can't eat today? poppendieck describes the "vicious circle" which leads emergency food providers and anti-hunger advocates to argue for funds for programs they "never meant to start" and which they consider "band-aids at best." in order to lobby for these supports, they promote private food assistance as efficient and effective, thus "unwittingly supporting further devolution of public support programs."

in the effort to attract donations, "the images of emergency food clients typically used in fund-raising campaigns are generally the images of patient sufferers, humbly waiting." poppendieck powerfully contrasts this picture with the "images of poor people projected by the civil rights movements or the organizing drives of the farmworkers in the 1960s... the grandchildren of selma and delano are in the soup kitchen lines, looking sad and downtrodden before dinner, or smiling and grateful afterwards."

poppendieck's research challenges the image of the emergency food system as simply arising from the spontaneous efforts of communities responding to visible hunger among their neighbors. she reveals how specific federal policies drove the early expansion of the emergency food system, creating a network which could later be used to justify shrinking federal resources to meet basic needs. in 1975, the community services administration offered an unsolicited grant to the st. mary's food bank in phoenix, arizona to provide technical assistance to teach communities to set up food banks. this grant established second harvest, the national network of food banks, which continued to receive funding for five years. after this, food banking began to spread more rapidly.

another early anchor for the system was government commodities which "were important in calling attention to hunger, and crucial in drawing many providers into the work in the first place." the well known tefap program provided not only usda commodities but administrative support funds which helped "stabilize many programs created during the emergency phase, allowing the development of capacity-cold storage and transportation, for example-that would enable food banks to solicit and handle donations from other sources."

having worked at food banks the last ten years, i have often grappled with the question of whether it is possible to promote food distribution and work for fundamental change. sweet charity? brings a new level of sophistication to the dialogue by detailing the role of the emergency food system in society and by focusing our attention squarely on the policy implications of feeding people without taking action to prevent hunger. poppendieck's analysis forcefully reminds us that we must authentically involve people from low income communities and address underlying social and economic inequalities if we are to achieve food security for all.

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