Poppendieck's Sweet Charity

In moving forward with my food policy readings, I’ve spent the last few days absorbing “Sweet charity: Emergency food and the end of entitlement” by Janet Poppendieck. While she hasn’t been as straightforward in declaring her positionality on the food insecurity issue as was Winne, I have really appreciated her writing style as a member of academia, a sociologist specifically, who is consistently able to blend her scholarly understanding with practical sensibilities. She spends a brief portion of her introduction detailing her methodology, which included participant observation, interviews, and archival analysis at food pantries, food banks, food rescue programs, and soup kitchens in nine different states across the span of 7 years. From the start, I was drawn into the book per my sharing of Poppendieck’s most notable fear: we are becoming attached to our charitable food programs and increasingly unable to envision a society that wouldn’t need them. As she suggests, we are so busy building bigger, better programs to deliver food to the hungry that we are losing sight of the underlying problem and its possible solutions.

Particularly, what I’m starting to find most interesting is that emergency food programs really don’t views themselves to be solutions to the problem of poverty. They are simply responses to the urgent needs of the hungry. The recipients, volunteers, and system itself rarely question why people are in need, why they continue to be in need, or how long that need will last. And as Poppendieck suggests, we’ve been inherently trained since birth to equate food with security in such a way that seeing others without food makes us intensely uncomfortable. We come to support providing it to those who lack it without consideration of what underlies that continual provision. She notes, “An enormous outpouring of effort (the monumental task of sorting and packing 280,000 pounds of food, logistically complicated, labor-intensive) is needed to get a can of carrots or a jar of baby food into the hands of a hungry family, a result that could probably be accomplished far more simply by raising the food stamp allotment, or the minimum wage.” As she discuss the inadequacies of the outdated 1996 poverty income thresholds, the Thrifty Food Plan that determines food stamp allotments, and the increased focus on quantifying an un-quantifiable “hunger count” of food insecure Americans, I’m once again left conflicted. In donating my time at the local pantry, rather than working instead to educate others regarding the weaknesses in domestic food policy, am I a complicit contributor to the food insecurity crisis? How much involvement can a scholar put forward towards policy and activism when we see injustice and have the resources available to help a cause garner public attention? More so, is that seeming potential even legitimate when others control the standards for what is and is not publishable?


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