The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on social inequality worldwide and on emergency food provisioning in particular. Many people have lost their income and have been unable to provide for their families. Not unexpectedly, food-bank use in the UK and the US skyrocketed. The Independent Food Aid Network UK, for example, recorded a 110% rise in demand for emergency food parcels for the period of February to November compared to last year’s figures for these months. In the US, mile-long queues formed for food banks in various states ahead of Thanksgiving, one of the nation’s most important holidays.
The need for emergency food aid arises out of acute income crises, reducing people’s buying power by so much that they cannot afford even the most basic staples. Many stories told by food-bank users are harrowing, and the donations and volunteer work of welfare organisations meet a pressing need for food. Even though such acts of charity are a necessity in the short term, the mechanisms according to which food donations are delivered are often problematic.
What could possibly be wrong with donating food to charity?
The key problem with food charity is that it does not address the root causes of poverty. Almost all key food banks and public kitchens recognise this and make a point of the need to address the root causes of poverty. Without such a concern, food banks and charities are like a plaster on a massive internal bleed. In this way, the operation and expansion of charitable activities without a concern for structural change allows the root causes of hunger to go unaddressed and enables government to abscond its responsibilities.
This recognition is not new. Many scholars and activists have made this well-established point. As early as 1996, for example, Janet Poppendieck (professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College in New York) argued that feeding the hungry could probably be accomplished more effectively by increasing the food stamp allocations, which are a key part of the U.S. food aid system, or by raising the minimum wage.
The view that food can be delivered to those in need much more efficiently, is not a popular one. Senior New York Times editor Dana Timothy Milbank, for example, reviewed Poppendieck’s book and responded with a host of reasons for why food banks do have an important role to play. According to Milbank, churches and food kitchen volunteers offer additional goods and ‘services’, such as friendship, encouragement and a listening ear, for example, which ‘the state could never deliver’, says Milbank.
But this kind of criticism is more concerned with the identity and motivations of the giver(s) than it is with the long-term interests of those in need. It misses the point. Numerous academic studies and debates in popular media make clear that respect for dignity is crucial in delivering emergency food aid. Sadly, this is often forgotten and leaves recipients experiencing shame and humiliation. Too often these experiences are — explicitly or implicitly — justified by a sense of who is deserving and who is not. Social thinker Danny Dorling has highlighted the significance of culture when aiming to solve what are often presented as primarily economic problems. ‘Inequality is more than just economics. It is culture that divides and makes social mobility impossible’.
Where to Next
The problem of increasing hunger — both in Britain and globally — seems an intractable one. As long as the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the work of food charities will remain crucial. But, as the crisis exacerbates, it is also increasingly clear that the activities of food charities are but drops in the ocean when faced with a rapidly growing need. In addition, the ways in which food parcels are delivered, may have unintended side effects. IFAN director Sabine Goodwin, for example, points out that food distributions may put both volunteers and recipients at risk of spreading and catching the virus.
The political decision to let charitable organisations deal with a problem they are ill-placed to address should be reviewed as soon as possible. This will not reduce the demand for food parcels in the short term. Many charities have already suggested practical solutions for reducing food bank demand. These range from making child care more affordable (Canada) to reducing the waiting periods for receiving Universal Credit (UK). In the short term, earmarking funds for emergency cash grants would ease the burden on charities and minimise the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus.