Social policy in the some of the world’s wealthiest countries has failed. Countries in which large numbers of the populace have to rely on food banks or other charitable feeding programs have divided their citizens into “us” and “them” and tarred “them” with the brush of “less worthy.”
No matter how fresh and healthy the food, no matter how barrier-free the application process, no matter how friendly and helpful the staff, food banks are a humiliating and inadequate means for governments to avoid responsibility for basic human justice, which includes the fundamental right to be free from hunger.
Food banks started as emergency measures in the 1980s but quickly became institutionalized within the non-profit sector. Thirty years later they continue to rely on charitable donations to fund their operations and to feed the masses who come through their doors. As Elaine Power wrote in July 25 in an essay for the Globe and Mail (“It’s time to close Canada’s food banks”):
Food banks have become a serious obstacle in the fight against poverty. By promising to “end hunger” by feeding hungry Canadians, they provide a comforting illusion that no one is hungry – or if they are, it’s their own fault. They shelter us from the harsh reality that millions lack the basic necessities of life.
Food banks have spread throughout the richest nations of the world. France has them. So do Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Jill Reilly wrote in the April 18th Guardian that UK food banks fed over 60,000 people last year and expect to feed over 100,000 this year. Food Banks Canada says a staggering 900,000 Canadians turn to them every month. Feeding America‘s network of food banks says it feeds 37 million Americans each year. Foodbank Australia provides food for 88,000 meals every day, 80 percent of it to low-income families.
Next: Food Banks As Signs of Moral Deficit
These are shocking figures. A society that sees charitable feeding programs as acceptable is a society in decline. In his 2002 report, Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy, Lessons from Canada?, Graham Riches wrote:
The rise of food banks in Canada is concrete evidence both of the breakdown of the social safety net and the commodification of social assistance. As such, they undermine the state”s obligation, as ratified in international conventions, to respect, protect and fulfill the human right to food. They enable governments to look the other way and neglect food poverty and nutritional health and well-being.
Writing in the August 24, 2012 Guardian, Richard Seymour identified “a shift from welfare to the punitive management of poverty.” Neoliberal policies have moved wealth upward and pushed people into joblessness and increased poverty. He gave the example of the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives:
The idea was that to be unemployed, addicted, homeless or hungry was to have merely a personal misfortune, reflecting personal failure. The recipient of such welfare is thus not just dependent, but at a moral deficit. The flipside of this paternalistic humanitarianism was the fear and loathing for the poor, which in the UK has been expressed in the spiteful locution “chav” [defined by Oxford Dictionaries online as "a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of (real or imitation) designer clothes"].
However, it would be mistaken to suppose that such precarity is restricted to the bottom rung of society. The effects of precarity run right up the chain of social classes and strata. While the urban poor are the most directly blighted, poverty and malnourishment act as a whip to discipline the whole workforce. The threat is not just of perpetual insecurity and hunger, but also of losing the status of respectability conferred by employment, and thus “self-reliance”. And as Shanene Thorpe discovered, as welfare is shredded, the boundaries of respectability are shifting upwards, including more people in the ranks of the culpable “underclass”. Those fortunate enough to stay just the right side of this divide will have added motivation to be compliant; docile toward social superiors, viciously competitive towards everyone else. Now we are all precarious.
In spite of the hard work and compassion of people who operate, donate to, and benefit from food banks and other feeding programs, only a fraction of the people who are food insecure can be served by them. Their resources are too limited to keep hunger at bay for their millions of clients. They can do nothing for the millions more who never walk through their doors.
Next: Time to Make Food Banks Unnecessary?
It doesn’t have to be that way. Democracy may be a bit tattered these days, but it is not dead. The Occupy Movement is a reminder of that. Last November Yes! Magazine published a thought-provoking list of “Ten Ways the Occupy Movement Changes Everything.” It is worth revisiting the whole list, but the tenth is one that should give the 99% a sense of hope:
We have reclaimed our power. Instead of looking to politicians and leaders to bring about change, we can see now that the power rests with us. Instead of being victims to the forces upending our lives, we are claiming our sovereign right to remake the world.”
What do you think, Care2 readers? Can we address food security and social equality in ways that preserve human dignity? Can we agree that adequate food is a right for all, not something to be given as charity? Can we stitch up our tattered safety nets so we can close food banks and feeding programs without sacrificing the well being of those who currently rely on them?
Thirty years ago food banks were a stopgap, emergency measure. Instead of perpetuating them, shouldn’t we be making them unnecessary?
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Photos 1 and 3: Thinkstock; Photo 2: Boston Food Bank, via Wikimedia Commons