Published Together: Interrupting a system of emergency with a system of justice

West Michigan is known for its philanthropy. In the food access sector we have hundreds of nonprofits, churches, and agencies working to address hunger and food insecurity via an emergency charity food system that is now over four decades old.

An economic crisis, like COVID-19, creates an emergency that amplifies deep disparities and deserves an immediate response to address the emergency. It must then be followed closely by a long-term plan to ensure that disparities are addressed through proactive strategy, not continued emergency response.

In many emergencies, after the situation is taken care of, a plan is put in place for how to improve the situation and prevent another emergency of its kind from happening again. Think of measures like seatbelts in a car, helmets for riding bikes, and fireproof materials in homes.

Each of these things were developed with research and study, trial and error, and with a variety of constituents and experience. Are the products perfect? No. Have they prevented injury from taking place? Research shows.

Unfortunately, the charity food system has not been this proactive. In the history of the charitable food system in the U.S., innovative strategies to cultivate a thriving local food system that prevents food insecurity has not widely been adopted. During the recession of the early 1980s, a bounty of nonprofits emerged to meet basic needs. These emergency hand-out programs were set up as temporary solutions and lacked long-term strategy. But those programs supported corporations who wanted customers and served the needs of wealthy citizens that wanted to volunteer and feel good about their investment in helping the poor. As corporate food entities donated products to charity food sites, their motivation came not just from tax write-offs and free waste management, but from free marketing as well. Food packages with the latest popular cartoon and diet-related messaging found their way to pantry goer’s dinner tables, becoming familiar and desired products for all members of the household.Erin Skidmore

Fast forward four decades and many of the thousands of nonprofits set up as temporary responses are still operating in the same ways and supporting a multitude of veiled interests, beyond their stated missions to help people. Instead of serving and prioritizing the needs and assets of the community most affected, many nonprofits are in the business of serving volunteers, ensuring that those who come to serve food or stock shelves feel as though they’ve changed lives and solved hunger. Rather than taking action to decrease the number of individuals and families reliant on charity food, organizations are celebrating the increasing number of pounds to an increasing number of people.

This is how the emergency food system in the U.S. has operated – by nature, as a system it has been transactional, reactive, disempowering, racist, and paternalistic. Instead of building a system that is inclusive of those most affected by poverty, many non-profit food organizations have been founded and led by white people, coming into a neighborhood with perceived solutions instead of working within a community to grow a local food system based on assets. This perpetuates a white savior mentality that is birthed out of colonialism and capitalism, and positions nonprofits as power holders.

At many pantries, soup kitchens, and other food access sites, food handouts are often distributed in ways that lack choice for those on the receiving end, moving people through lines like cattle instead of creating an environment that is welcoming, inclusive, and communal. There exists in the non-profit food sector an attitude that people should just be happy with what they get if they are poor, that any food is better than no food at all. But what that doesn’t take into account is that all people, inclusive of those experiencing food insecurity, have cultural and religious values, as well as dietary needs and preferences that support individual and community health. Charity food has largely ignored this beautiful part of being human. Within the system of charity food are good-hearted people who have not intended to harm while intending to do good, but like many systems, there are deep flaws that have created negative outcomes for low-income communities in the areas of health and wealth.

It’s easy to give hand-outs. It's much harder to go deep, bring diverse people together, and form long-term strategies to reduce poverty and inequity. We need a different food system. We need a just food system.

There is no one-size-fits-all map to building a just local food system. Not one formula to eliminate food insecurity. And there shouldn’t be. To grow in food justice, we need grassroots solutions, collaboration, creativity, and to be led by the people who make up a community. Each neighborhood, county, state, and region has its own unique assets to do the work from the ground up. From food cooperatives and fresh market corner stores, to community land ownership and policy changes in support of fair labor practices, the solutions are endless.

If we believe that people have the right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food (definition from Just Food), and start responding from that belief, we will see more shared gardens, policy change in support of fair labor practices, increased land ownership for People of Color, and more healthy people and communities.
That sounds like food justice.

For more information and examples on topics discussed in the article see:
DC Greens
Black Church Food Security Network
New City Urban Farm
Why Hunger
Sweet Charity? by Janet Poppendieck
Big Hunger by Andy Fisher
The Stop by Nick Saul
The Pandemic Has Exposed Rifts in Our Broken System
How Food Banks Prop Up a Broken System
The Covid Crisis is Reinforcing the Hunger Industrial Complex


Photos courtesy Access of West Michigan.

Erin is the Good Food Systems Director at Access of West Michigan, where she has worked since 2017. Erin supports Access’ Good Food Systems initiatives with the goal of cultivating a just and equitable food system for all. Erin's journey with food has been wide as she has dabbled both in culinary and farm work. She values opportunities for learning and growth that have been a part of her food and life journey and appreciates the wonderful people doing this challenging, but beautiful work.
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