By Charlotte Spring, PhD researcher at the University of Salford @eatingwaste
The co-occurence of Brexit and the Trump presidency demands close attention to the nature of the ‘special relationship’, one forged through wartime alliances but also shared language and histories of migration, trade, Evangelical Protestantism…and phenomenal acts of colonialism. In a post-Brexit world, we must take special care to heed America’s lessons in how not to organise society. The food bank will be my example.
It’s a staple of patching up holes in a damaged social safety net across the pond, and one that Britain appears to have embraced. Specifically, the common-sense notion that redistributing surplus or wasted food can redress household food insecurity. What can history teach us about the economic rationales for doing so, and what can research into redistribution on both sides of the Atlantic add to this critique? We face a time where European ties look set to be exchanged for American ones. Without a cultural-economic crystal ball, I’d like to point out the way charitable food redistribution has long served to redress the imbalances of capitalist food markets in America, at a time when US-UK food markets could see greater harmonization, yet income inequality and state solutions to address it look set to calcify or worsen.
Rewind to 1933 America, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was faced with a paradoxical and embarrassing political situation. As Jan Poppendieck describes, the fledgling New Deal administration faced unprecedented poverty and destitution amidst overwhelming agricultural surpluses. Families couldn’t afford to buy food while supply threatened to collapse commodity values. The ‘Agricultural Adjustment Administration’ tried to curb an anticipated glut in the hog market by offering a bonus for the slaughter of baby and pregnant pigs. Public outrage ensued as farmers sent more piglets to slaughter than anticipated, due to drought-induced shortage of corn to feed them. The hog-butchering equipment was not designed for baby animals so most were liquefied into “tankage”, used for fertiliser or feed. Storage tanks overfilled and rumours emerged of processors dumping the liquified pig in rivers and gravel pits at the edge of Chicago. As the weather warmed, the stench and flies were unbearable. “The press had a field day”, writes Poppendieck, as angry letters to newspapers protested that “wilful waste brings woeful want”. Eventually, Roosevelt ordered the redistribution of surplus food to the unemployed via a new agency, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation.
Fast forward to the warehouse of the Alameda County Community Food Bank near Oakland, California. During a tour of the facility in April 2016, my eyes can barely take in the scale – pallets of food stacked on 3 levels, stretching back into the gloom. Forklifts scoot in and out: humans need machines to navigate this giant pantry. The fridge is industrial, with pallets of fruit stacked six high and many deep. Much of the food is produced in the US, which unlike the UK produces enormous farm surpluses. I see USDA-stamped walnuts, redistributed since Roosevelt’s time through the food bank network as ‘government commodities’. In a historical continuance of the hog distribution, crops are subsidised and purchased through policies and programmes aimed at maintaining prices for farmers and guarding against such situations as senators discovering emaciated and undernourished children in rural Mississippi during an investigative visit in the late 1960s. In a country where wages have often failed to guarantee food access, and welfare reforms by Republicans and Democrats alike have undermined income supports for the poorest, food banks persist as a vital source of food for thousands, to this day. As noted, however, they have also been a response to agricultural overproduction and market economics that prioritise price over access to food.
My research trip to America in 2016 sought lessons and warnings about the unintended consequences of institutionalizing emergency food charity as a normalized response to poverty in a wealthy society. The trip and its findings are described in much more detail in this report. It highlights some of the key differences between our welfare and food systems as well as giving case studies of examples of food projects that go beyond the charitable food parcel to up-skilling communities, creating jobs and healthier, more sustainable food procurement networks in cities.
But thousands of people continue to rely on charitable food parcels to make up the shortfalls in wages and government-funded nutrition supports (such as food stamps, or ‘SNAP’). The growth and professionalisation of food charity could be said to have led to a sophisticated counter-voice in the form of advocacy by organisations like Put Food in the Budget (in Canada), FRAC, Hunger-Free America or the Center for Hunger-Free Communities (which centres in its advocacy those with lived experience of food insecurity), as well as staff employed by food banks themselves to do research, community organising and advocacy at local, state and federal levels.
The UK has seen organising around political responses to hunger, in the form of End Hunger UK for example, which calls for government to recognise its duty to prevent citizens from going to bed hungry. Their task is not a simple one: with potentially years of right-wing government to come (as communities brace themselves for the impacts of the latest round of welfare reform), not to mention the turmoil of Brexit, the atmosphere is not ripe for dealing with the deep roots of food poverty (see Marc Stears’ recent FT article for a less gloomy view). But one hopeful lesson from the US is that fighting hunger has become something of a bipartisan issue, one whose solutions can be framed in multiple ways, from the cynical (a good diet makes for good workers) to the economically rational (it prevents future health costs) to the common-sense ethics of biblical invocations to care for one’s neighbour. So talk to your neighbours, maybe even join/hold a Big Conversation and, if you’re so inclined, send some visions of a fairer-food society on a plate to your MP, especially if yours is a, let’s say, ‘deserving poor’ type….? Fixing a broken food system requires more than tweaks and reforms, but communities organising around food is a good start.
The redistribution of food waste as a seemingly obvious solution to hunger complicates the picture somewhat, providing another ‘push factor’ to the rationale of rolling out food charity. Current debates in the UK around what to do about food waste echo some of the contradictions notable in the story of piglet slaughter – what makes food waste so despicable for many is the fact that our knowledge of it sits alongside our knowledge of poverty and hunger in our midst. Redistributing some of the avoidable and edible wasted food has become a prime policy goal and last year 710,000 tonnes were redistributed via charitable and commercial routes (up from 47,000 tonnes in 2015-WRAP 2017 REF). You can exchange unwanted food with your neighbours using the app OLIO, or pick up a cheap late-night dinner from buffet leftovers using Too Good to Go. Supermarkets have entered into formal arrangements with charities to donate certain unsold foods at the end of the day and organisations including the Real Junk Food Project, Felix Project, FareShare, Plan Zheroes and FoodCycle have all expanded operations to try and redirect food to people rather than bins. Such organisations differ importantly in their goals to address food poverty as opposed to food waste but they all reflect a growing intent by food companies and the wider public to curb the embarrassment of good food going uneaten when so many struggle to pay for a decent diet.
However, there is a growing critical voice arguing that the costs of redistributing wasted food outweigh the benefits, especially where this is done expressly to feed those considered food insecure. For example, in a January briefing paper Martin Caraher and Sinead Furey argued that “the benefits of using food waste to feed people accrue primarily to the food industry whilst absolving responsibility of the government to address food insecurity”. In a recent blog article, Megan Blake agrees: “food poverty can only be solved by changing our welfare and economic system such that food is recognised as a right rather than as a private commodity to be purchased”. Both point out the issue of threatened dignity and segregation by normalising a secondary food system of surplus food ‘for the poor’.
All of these arguments have been made stridently by North American commentators after decades of development of such a secondary food system. Poppendieck, quoted earlier, described in her 1998 book Sweet Charity the ‘Seven Deadly Ins’ of emergency food charity: its inaccessibility, inappropriateness, indignity, nutritional inadequacy, instability, insufficiency and inefficiency. To this list can be added ‘inequality’– in the very spatial and behavioural distinction between giver and receiver of a parcel of food, the social contract is reduced to a contingent, voluntary gesture. Outside a food bank in Albuquerque, I read a sign in the window that read ‘If you leave the line for any reason at all you must return to the end of the line: NO EXCEPTIONS’. This to me captured the indignity, the lack of choice, the disciplinary deference that foodbank clients must undergo: at the back of the queue, with no space to tell your story, explain your resistance or, by any means, cut to the front.
America’s current issues, as I need not remind anyone, go way beyond any narrow focus on food could possibly convey. But perhaps the moral repugnance many feel over the ascent of Trump, and the uglier side of Brexit, needs not to yield despair but, as Chomsky, Zizek and others have argued, be channelled into critical thought and organised resistance to oppression. Food, and the way it is produced and shared out, seems an important place to start that critique.
Poppendieck, J. (2014). Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression, Updated and Expanded. University of California Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/35626