Is Food Charity Political? If so, how do we organize?

Is Food Charity Political? If so, how do we organize?

Charitable food networks have been growing in many countries, which has seen foodbanking organisations lobbying national governments for funding and favourable regulatory environments for the redistribution of surplus food as charity. Meanwhile, some food charities have become vocal critics of government policy that they see as driving food insecurity. It’s clear that the link between charity and the state is a complicated and shifting one. Our guest today will help us shed light on this issue of whether, and how, charity can be seen as political- and what those working on the ground can do about it.

Host: Charlie Spring, Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems

Guest: Joshua Lohnes, Director at West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities

Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center

Interview Summary

Our guest today is Joshua Lohnes, food policy research director at the West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities. He’s a scholar activist who writes and organizes alongside members of the West Virginia Food For All coalition. Josh will help us shed light on whether and how food charity can be seen as political, why that is a problem for us all, and what those working on the ground can do about it. 

I’m Charlie Spring, your host for today, I’m a researcher at the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems. I’ve been researching the growth of charitable food networks, particularly in the UK, where one thing I’ve noticed is food banking organizations lobbying national government for funding or for favorable regulatory environments for the redistribution of surplus food as charity. Meanwhile, some UK food charities have become vocal critics of government policy that they see as driving food insecurity. It’s clear that the link between charity and state is a complicated and shifting one. 

My first question is, most people working and volunteering in food charities wouldn’t think of their work as political. What’s hunger and food charity got to do with politics?

Food charity work is absolutely political. Anytime we intervene to assist someone on the brink of food access failure, we’re shaping and even reinforcing the everyday realities of the politics that structure our entire food system. While charities may not want to contend with this reality, they are, by default, acting within a set of policies that govern society’s response to household food insecurity. Those working in food charity, they know that they’re working within an extremely complex food system. They witness this complexity every day, more than most. Charitable food workers are also often aware that this system is driven by profit logics shaped by powerful actors in the food system, including the state and large corporations.

Even if individual charities tend to operate on a logic of care over a logic of profit, the fact that they exist as a critical part of our contemporary food supply chains is a testament to the way in which specific interests in society have shaped the laws that govern food charity and the expansion of these food assistance networks over time. Free, volunteer or even low cost labor that charitable food work provides to this system is very much a part of a broader calculation. From that optic, anybody engaged in food charity is really, intimately engaged in a political project around what the future of our food system will be.

Thanks for bringing in some of those questions around logics of care over logics of profits and the question of labor in food charity work. Can you tell us a little bit more about how this expansion of food charity happened? How did politics fit into that?

I study emergency food networks in a US context from here in West Virginia, one of the places with the highest food and security rates in the country. I’ve observed this expansion unfold here over the past eight years. I’ve taken more and more of an interest in the global expansion of food charity. If we look at the US case, specifically, food charity and politics really began to intersect in the 1980s, shortly after the Reagan administration came into power. There was this concerted effort to trim down social services provided by the state like housing, cash and food assistance programs. They were all cut pretty drastically. As a result, people began lining up at churches and other organizations that had previously provided ad hoc intermittent food aid. Those cuts, they were part of a political project – one that’s typically branded as trickledown economics. It left many people vulnerable to hunger.

As feeding lines expanded and became a regular part of everyday food sourcing strategies for some people, a word got out that there was all of this excess cheese and other surplus food commodities in government storehouses all across the country. Political pressure was put on the Reagan administration to release this public food to local feeding programs. That initiated a process of integrating food charities directly into federal food policy. 40 years on this response has evolved into a multi-billion dollar program we now know as the Emergency Food Assistance program or TEFAP. On the private side, the good Samaritan food donation laws were also written and shaped by corporate donors over the same period to benefit their bottom-line interests.

Then we’ve seen this massive expansion over the past 18 months, as feeding lines expanded once again in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic. Here, states, private corporations, philanthropies have all invested heavily in charitable food networks. This doesn’t just happen. Decisions are made in corporate boardrooms and in government committees to leverage charitable food labor and the infrastructure there, to resolve a major crisis in our food system. One, that simultaneously produces absurd amount of waste and endemic levels of hunger. Unless charities mobilize together to come to this realization and push back against these perverse dynamics, unless there’s some concerted political effort to counter these trends, we’ll see food charity continue to normalize as a growing part of everyday life in our communities. I think we really need to be asking whom does food charity ultimately serve? Whom are we working for when we distribute food to those in need? We serve our neighbors of course, but we also serve a powerful food cartel that has significant interest in maintaining this status quo.

I think we’ve seen similar trajectories of food charity expansion following welfare cuts in other parts of the world, certainly in the UK, across Europe, in Australia and increasingly in other countries as well. If charity is political then, what can people who are working assistance programs on the ground do to genuinely address food and security issues in their communities through the policy process?

That’s a great question. I think the answer is organize. Organize and keep organizing. Local food charities are already organized into some kind of structure. Here in the US if you distribute TEFAP food, you are working on behalf of the federal government, which is highly organized. If you redistribute food waste from Walmart or the Kellogg corporation, you’re being organized by Feeding America and a board of directors, largely beholden to the interests of these corporations. Food charities need to organize independent movements that have a powerful enough political voice to counter the dynamics currently leading to the expansion of food charity.

I think that once food charities realize that their labor, their fundraising, their infrastructure investments bring a significant amount of collective value to this profit driven system, they can begin to leverage and take back that social value to reshape the entire food system from below, for and with the very people to whom they’re providing food aid.

Now, I don’t know how many people remember, but just last year, Donald Trump placed letters in every box of food distributed by the federal government during the pandemic right during election season. He understood food charity as a political space. How are we leveraging the spaces we’ve created to shape the food system that we want to see in the next 10, 20 or 30 years? These are questions I have because an organized political movement of local food charities that elevates the voices of those they serve, could be a powerful force, reshaping the moral economy of our entire food system. Of course, it involves rethinking what food charity is at its core as well. This will take time, but emergent initiatives like Closing the Hunger Gap here in the US, this Global Solidarity Alliance were part of is beginning to do work.

Now, you can also do that work at the local level with your city or your county government. You can do that work by building alliances with other political groups that are already organizing around these issues. We’re doing it here through the West Virginia Food for All Coalition, a broad coalition of food banks and farmers and anti-poverty advocates. We need to build alliances that connect across place, connect across space, advocating for social issues that go far beyond food; low wages, poor healthcare, high housing costs, expensive transportation. Now, we can collectively get involved in shaping the laws linked to the production of hunger in our communities. If we don’t, you can be sure others will shape them on our behalf. We’ve seen where that’s led these past 40 years, the continued expansion of food charity.

I just learned last week that the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona seeded a political campaign to increase minimum wage in the city of Tucson. That just passed last week. Now, that’s wonderful. Charities getting involved in the political process to actually reduce the need for charity. Here in West Virginia charities are beginning to get involved in the movement for constitutional amendment around the right to food. That’s also really cool. It’s wonderful. The first step, I think, is for charities to learn about the policies that undergird their systems. Food charity, why does it exist? Why is it there in the first place? Only then can we organize with purpose. From my vantage point, the right to food movement and the food sovereignty movement already give us all of the language and concepts that we need to begin doing that, no matter what political scale you’re organizing at or that you feel your organization can act within.

I know from firsthand experience, it’s not easy doing politics, but again, anyone involved in distributing charitable food is already involved in a political project. Unfortunately, when you follow the money, it’s probably not a project that you actually want to be a part of. I think that the first step in getting involved in this work, politically, is digging into the politics that create the need for food charity in the first place.

Listening to this podcast seems like a great way to begin to do that. Thanks for inviting me on to contribute some of these thoughts. I look forward to learning with you as this project moves forward.


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