Friday, July 1, 2011

(Not) Talking about Hunger: Experiences from the Mobile Pantry & Insights from Winne

This week, in addition to reading Winne’s “Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty,” I had an opportunity to visit another mobile food pantry offered by Food Finders in West Lafayette. While my primary purpose wasn’t to serve as a volunteer for Food Finders (instead distributing and helping participants complete the community needs assessment from the health department that I’ve worked on for some time), it was difficult not to once again share in the experiences and listen to the voices of those visiting for free food. First, I was pleasantly surprised to run into 5 of our participants from the “Voices of Hunger” project. Seeing them there was a reassurance that they are all surviving amidst their hardship, and brief conversations with them spawned two interesting thoughts in relation to my food policy readings.

First, I chatted with one of our former participants (of the most engaged in the project) about a conversation she had with a Senator a few weeks prior. I’m not sure of the context of their conversation, but she had used the time to discuss with him issues she shared with us regarding the inability of reformed felons (out of jail and trying to survive) to receive food stamp benefits. His response to her was to create a petition, and with enough signatures, she could pass the petition on to him (for what purpose exactly, I’m not 100% clear). However, it was difficult to not share in her complete excitement for the potential to have her voice heard and appreciated. I let her know that once it was created, we’d do what we could at the university to help in any way. I was hopeful for her cause, and proud of her for working through the bureaucratic system to get her voice heard. But ultimately, I’m extremely critical of what the Senator was able to suggest. Giving this woman, and those who sign the petition, false hope of a policy change that is unlikely to occur amidst the conservative, monetarily-drained Indiana legislature is deceptive. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile my excitement in her engagement with the reality of the situation at hand.

Additionally, in seeing 5 of our 6 voices of hunger participants at the mobile pantry, I’m led to question the true purposes of the “emergency” food system in “solving” the hunger crisis. What is the mere provision of free food doing to create a long-term food security plan for this community? The continual reliance of the poverty-ridden on the food bank system and the subsequent provision of food does little to aid or encourage these individuals to find a way to improve their life situations such that they are able to decrease their reliance, or to change the way we think about governmental hunger policy at a national level. As Winne suggests, “we must seriously examine the role of food banking, which requires that we no longer praise its growth as a sign of our generosity and charity, but instead recognize it as a symbol of our society’s failure to hold government accountable for food insecurity and poverty.” He continues by suggesting that food banks should no longer serve as a “dumping ground for the waste and surplus of American’s food industry,” instead returning to the role of addressing genuinely short-term community emergencies. While I’m grateful that such services are available in our community to help those in need, I’m conflicted in the true good such services do in the long term scheme of ending hunger here in Lafayette. With federal funding consistently wavering, and in this economic climate, often unavailable, what happens to those who rely on this system when the food industry ends its so-called “charitable” provision of leftover food to banks and money from private donations runs dry? How are we to argue for improvement of federal systems (such as food stamps) when opponents to change see that the food stamp ineligible are still able to get needed food from other community services?

While this doesn’t relate to my conversations, it was quite a site to see of West Lafayette’s most wealthy citizens (the pantry was located and sponsored by a church, which put up $1000, in of the wealthiest communities in West Lafayette) drive by the location gawking in astonishment from their Hummers, and the pampered college students staring from their parent-subsidized front doors, at the line of 500 of Lafayette’s most needy in their backyards. Did any walk over and offer to help? Not one. The looks on their faces were more of anger at the intrusion. For me, it was one of the clearest displays of the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots I’ve ever witnessed.

Finally, I was particularly moved by one of the final conclusions made by Winne in the final pages of his book, which seemed strikingly similar to the agenda afforded by a culture-centered approach to understanding food insecurity and spoke directly to my experiences at the mobile pantry this week. Within his suggestion entitled “Race, class, and privilege: Make way for the next wave,” Winne notes:

“The fact that our food system is racist, classist, and sexist should come as no surprise to anyone…people of color, low-income households, and women are the first to suffer. Who is affected by the food gap and who participates in the efforts to narrow that gap are questions that deserve much more than a few paragraphs…indeed they deserve a book until themselves. As a person of power and privilege, I have been intensely aware of both what I can and what I cannot do. There are few examples in the social movement literature of one class of people bringing about change for another class of people. As with these movements, the struggle for equity, access, affordability, health food, and food security will ultimately be won by those with the most at stake. Yes, I am privileged. And as I use the talents that God gave me- carefully honed as they were by education, opportunity, and a middle-class upbringing- to make the lives of others at least a little better, I will pave the way for, make way for, and get out of the way of those whose voices more genuinely call out for change than mine ever could. Policy efforts to change the food system and close the food gap must be most inclusive of the lives we are attempting to improve. They can pursue that goal through public policies, faith communities, and individual and organizational acts of charity that give everyone a seat at the table. But most importantly, they must share the same meal.”

Beautifully put.

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