For the second week of readings in my study of food policy, I was introduced to the historical origins and current developments in the food insecurity policy landscape. In reading Eisinger’s (1998) Towards an End to Hunger in America, as well as a number of academic articles from public health, nutrition, and social policy studies, I began to note the ways in which a scholar of communication (across sub-disciplines) could contribute in a multi-dimensional way to discussions of food insecurity. These readings were extremely insightful for me, so bear with the length.
First, one particularly interesting point for discussion relates to merely defining food insecurity. Specifically, discursive conflicts have occurred in distinguishing hunger from food insecurity. While this debate began with the first political discussions of food insecurity in 1960s and 1970s, the settling of a clear definition of food insecurity and/or hunger is still yet to be achieved. The Committee on National Statistics recommendations to the most recent 2006 USDA report on national food security states, “The word “hunger” should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” However, is hunger merely a clinical concept related to malnutrition, or in defining hunger in the realm of food insecurity, is it something best conceptualized as a political construct with clear social implications? The CNSTAT panel also recommended that the USDA consider alternative labels to convey the severity of food insecurity without using the word “hunger.” However, as Eisinger (1998) argues, hunger elicits more emotion and resonance in the political landscape than does an issue of “security”. How might mere definition of these terms lead to more or less mobilization of public concern for food insecurity? Lack of broadly accepted definitions makes it difficult for the public to demand accountability and complicates the flow of information and education about the importance of hunger and food insecurity. And most importantly, why haven’t we asked those experiencing hunger to help us in the process of definition, rather than relying solely (as we have for years) on multiple Congressional subcommittees and large national data gathering institutions? This plays directly in to the communicative erasures a culture-centered perspective would bring forward for criticism.
Another interesting communicative framing in the context of food insecurity relates to participation in federal food assistance programs, such as food stamps. American perspectives on social welfare are often based upon ambivalence; while individuals are interested in being generous to the genuinely destitute, they also believe that large numbers of recipients of social welfare are cheats or lazy. As Eisinger notes, discursively focusing on abuse of the system leaves society with a general sense of doubt that truly hungry people do need help and downplays the administrative complexity of the food assistance system. Investment in such programs also creates a quid-pro-quo scenario where, if society invests in the well-being of a needy group, the group is expected to owe society greater productivity and achievement in return. This shifts the blame for failed policies from the policy itself towards individual merit and one’s return-on-investment, intentionally commodifying the food insecure. In considering the underlying purposes behind food assistance, we are left questioning whether our interest is truly to help the poor verses creating a market for surplus farm products (as bulk donations to food pantries are largely commodity excess) or a workforce able to compete with (and fight against) other nations in the future.
Additionally, according to Cook (2002), new rules and regulations under the Personal Opportunity and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 enabled states to place additional restrictions on eligibility for federal food assistance programs. The new law placed an overall five-year limit on receipt of benefits for most recipients, and transferred primary responsibilities for design, implementation, and oversight of welfare programs to state and local governments. Subsequent analyses have shown that those leaving the caseloads of federal food assistance programs are relying more heavily on private emergency food sources like food pantries and soup kitchens. Charitable groups often substitute for governmental aid altogether, with a number of eligible citizens never accessing federal program benefits. Why is this the case? And more importantly, in framing the charitable sector as an alternative to public food assistance or a safety net for those without government aid, are we leaving ourselves with little pressure to support or augment these broad social welfare programs?
Finally, I was also very intrigued by Eisinger’s discussion of volunteers in the charitable food sector, and in this I saw great potential for communication scholars to contribute, especially in consideration of our work on the Food Finders project. He first notes that we know little of the dimensions of more sustained volunteering in providing food to the needy (beyond a mere one time donation). Studies have found that pantries have 2.1 paid employees but more than 28 volunteer workers, with a value of more than $400 million per year to some organizations. However, recruiting and training volunteers requires a considerable investment, and most are short term with high levels of burnout. In the realm of persuasive study and organizational communication, one might be interested in asking how the degree of bureaucratization and structuration in charitable food groups alter volunteer commitment. How do we balance the “bureaucratic” requirements such that they don’t lead to volunteer burnout while also maintaining and sense of legitimacy and professional to the system? Should a better training program for volunteers be crafted in this light? What can we do to persuade more individuals to invest in long-term volunteering? As a critical scholar, I was also interested to find that 55% of food charity volunteers participate for altruistic purposes, while the remainder do so for moral satisfaction or to fulfill a personal purpose. In framing volunteering as a charitable act, the recipient of the service has no entitlement. Is this truly serving the interests of the needy?