The Dark History of Modern-Day ‘Emergency’ Food Assistance in the US

Food Features food insecurity
The Dark History of Modern-Day ‘Emergency’ Food Assistance in the US

At the height of the pandemic, food banks across the country were bombarded with need. Unemployment, uncertainty and the failure of federal and state governments to keep people fed during this particularly difficult point in American history meant that food banks—and their workers and volunteers—were forced to work overtime to attempt to distribute food to those who needed it most. In March of 2021, Feeding America reported that food banks across the country were feeding 55% more people than they were pre-pandemic.

This response was organized by the so-called “emergency” food system, a relatively informal network of food banks, pantries and charities that help keep people fed when the social safety net fails them, as it so often does. While covid called renewed attention to the issues of food insecurity we face as a nation, people were facing food insecurity long before the pandemic and will continue to in years to come. But this inflection point gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at how we got to this model of food assistance… and how we can meet our needs for nutrition as a society moving forward.

It Wasn’t Always Like This

The structure of our charitable food system might seem like a given, but it wasn’t that long ago that food insecurity was handled in a completely different way in the U.S. The election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency in 1980 marked a marked shift in U.S. food policy. Before Reagan’s election, food entitlements were somewhat expansive (though still riddled with barriers to universal nutrition).

But during the early ‘80s, food stamp benefits were slashed, leaving many across the country desperate for a reliable source of nutrition. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 didn’t just undermine food assistance either—cuts to housing, energy and Medicaid also introduced new levels of financial precarity into many Americans’ lives. Add to these cuts a recession, and it was clear that the need for food was growing rapidly.

The Rise of Charitable Food

If the government was no longer responsible for making sure people were fed, who was? Reagan’s solution was charity. Janet Poppendieck writes in her 1998 book “Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement ” that this call for charitable food wasn’t just a way to absolve the government of its responsibilities, but it also “gave [conservatives] an opportunity to reclaim a piece of the moral high ground and prove that liberals do not have a monopoly on compassion.”

Churches rushed to fill the void that the government had left behind. And although many of these organizations did find varying levels of success in getting food to people who needed it, they were not equipped to tackle the larger, systemic issues that lead to food insecurity in the first place. At the beginning, these solutions were referred to as “emergency” food assistance. But 20 years later, Janet Poppendieck found that many people still relied on charitable, so-called “emergency” services on a regular basis. And now, another 20 years later, Feeding America claims that one in seven Americans utilizes food banks. “Emergency” food is not designed for emergencies—Americans rely on it for daily sustenance when their paychecks and government assistance fail them.

But What’s Wrong with Charity?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not opposed to food banks or charitable organizations that do their best to feed those in need. Many of these organizations are doing whatever they can to make sure their communities are fed in spite of our broken food system. But there are a lot of issues with charitable food, which Poppendieck breaks down into “the seven deadly ‘ins’ of emergency food”: insufficiency, inappropriateness, nutritional inadequacy, instability, inaccessibility, inefficiency and indignity.

In short, there isn’t enough healthy food to go around, it’s often difficult to access and people aren’t getting the foods they actually want to eat. Instead, recipients of food charity—if they are even lucky enough to access it—have very little say over what they eat. What is the celiac meant to do when the only grain they have to eat for the whole week is a few boxes of pasta from the food bank? How is the mother of a son suffering from a nut allergy supposed to make sure her child gets enough fat in his diet when all that’s offered at the local church’s pantry is peanut butter? The food that these people depend on to stay alive is viewed not as a right but as a gift, one that they should ostensibly feel grateful for even when it does not adequately meet their needs and basic wants. Feeding people is about more than nutrition—we should all have at least some agency when it comes to choosing what we want to eat.

New Visions for Food Assistance

It’s easy to assert that food banks, with their many inadequacies, should be replaced by comprehensive public programs to address food insecurity. But considering that these policy issues have been a reality for over 40 years at this point, a more compassionate and dignified model for food banking may be a more immediate, pragmatic solution. Katie S. Martin’s book, “Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger ” provides practical guidance to nonprofit professionals working in this arena for ensuring that food pantry users are met with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Still, as inflation rises and grocery store prices continue to leave many Americans with empty fridges, we must continue putting pressure on our officials to meet the moment—and simultaneously find better ways to fight hunger in our own communities.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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