In her new book, Rebecca de Souza looks at the harmful culture of charitable food pantries that prioritize hard work and economic value over food justice and equity.
As anyone who has spent time in food pantries will tell you, they can be places of caring—and places of great racial tension and indignity. University of Minnesota-Duluth communication professor Rebecca de Souza spent two years volunteering at two very different food pantries in Duluth. In her just-released book, Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries, de Souza foregrounds the seldom-heard voices, experiences, and realities of people living with hunger. She documents how the culture of suspicion in food pantries produces a stigmatizing experience for their patrons. Feeding the Other shows how a well-intentioned system run by people of good intentions has become a perpetual poverty machine, generating the conditions for its continued existence rather than its own elimination, as should be the case.
As a woman of color and a middle-class Indian immigrant, de Souza uses her insider/outsider perspective to assess in new ways the interplay between the whiteness of the volunteers, Calvinist beliefs about the moral failings of the poor, and poor people’s internalization of the messages society tells them about themselves. Despite the structural racism embedded in the food pantry experience, de Souza believes that if food pantries cultivated the leadership of those experiencing hunger and paid greater attention to their needs rather than those of the donors or volunteers, food pantries could become agents of food justice.
I spoke with de Souza to discuss the intersections between race, food justice, stigma, and neoliberalism as experienced in the charitable food system.
What do you mean by the “Other,” as in the title of your book? Who is the Other?
In the United States, poor people and people of color- particularly those who seek out public assistance- have been made the Other. They are viewed as suspicious because they are poor or look poor, have darker skin tones, and use welfare. In the book I write about how Other is not a natural category, but rather created through social and political discourses- the result of decades of negative political propaganda. Take for instance the stereotype of the Black Welfare Queen (BWQ). This stereotype can be traced to speeches made by President Reagan during his campaign rallies in 1976. He told stories about women who were defrauding the welfare system and living it up. In one speech, he talked about the “Cadillac-driving Chicago welfare queen,” who was a con artist, lazy, and Black, who had “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 social security cards” and was collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existent deceased husbands. While the BWQ stereotype is not linked to hunger and food pantries per se, this idea of people of color and poor people “abusing the system” can be found in food pantries even today.
What is neoliberalism and how does it produce stigma?
Neoliberalism is a political theory and practice, sometimes called “capitalism with the gloves off”. Neoliberalism glorifies a particular kind of work- work that produces value and wealth in the marketplace. Wealth is a proxy for personal responsibility and accountability, while poverty provokes suspicion. Good citizens are those who work hard, have a can-do attitude, contribute to the GDP, and engage in healthy behaviors. “Bad citizens” are those who do not work hard, are lazy, irresponsible, have “bad attitudes,” and burden the health care system. Neoliberal stigma provides a convenient explanation for poverty and racial inequity, where the individual is to blame. This dynamic plays out in food pantries between middle class volunteers and food insecure clients. This dynamic is also found among food pantry clients themselves who see each other as suspicious and are constantly trying to differentiate themselves from “those who abuse the system”. This stigma erodes community and the possibility for social action and social justice.
Feeding the Other centers on the tales of two food pantries in Duluth and how they foster stigma among their clients. Tell us about them and how they work.
It is important to first situate food pantries in the context of the larger food system. Hunger and food insecurity affect a gigantic number of people in the US- approximately 40 million. The government manages hunger and hungry people in two ways- through government food assistance programs like SNAP, WIC, and NSLP- and through charitable food assistance programs like food shelves and soup kitchens. The government provides surplus commodity foods to food shelves, has laws and policies that protect food donors from liability, and gives tax credits to corporate food donors. The government depends on food shelves to manage the national hunger problem- and without these food shelves there would be breadlines and social unrest. So while my book critiques food pantries and the dynamics within them, food pantries are very much part of a neoliberal political project that displaces government responsibility with charitable solutions. Charity is of course a terrible solution because it does not solve the problem and furthermore, it reinforces stigma and social distance.
Chum is your traditional food pantry. Because they get food from the government, clients have to meet income eligibility criteria and are restricted on how often they can come back. The atmosphere is bureaucratic -there is paperwork to be filled out and clients participate in intake interviews to confirm eligibility. The place is run-down and uninviting. Chum tends to be a more politically liberal organization and uses a social justice language to talk about its work. A social justice sensibility is interested in equity and redistributive justice; it identifies with others from a position of solidarity and calls for structural/ policy changes to redress longstanding inequities.
Stigma is reinforced here because Chum does little to disrupt historical narratives of fraud and abuse that circulate in food pantries. Similar to other traditional food pantries, clients experience scrutiny and surveillance- for example, a volunteer is always required to accompany clients as they pick out their food so as to ensure that they are not taking more than what is allowed. Volunteers also fall prey to stigmatizing judgments about who is at the food shelf and why. Because of Chum’s mixed accountabilities to funders, donors, and stakeholders, it is also not explicit enough about food injustice. I argue that Chum, like many food pantries across the US, needs to shift the narrative of hunger. Food pantries need to make clear that hunger is an injustice linked to historical inequities of race, class, and gender. They should tell clients that it is not their fault that they are poor. They should also directly address the myth of “fraud and abuse” pervasive in food assistance settings.
Ruby’s Pantry (RP) is a more entrepreneurial food pantry. It charges $20 for a big box of food valued at $100, and there are no income eligibility criteria. The food pantry “pops up” once a month. Clients wait in long lines, but there is a fun and festive atmosphere. RP is rooted in evangelical conservative leanings. RP takes great pride in the fact that it does not receive government funding and is not affiliated with Feeding America, but rather procures its own surplus food directly from corporations.
RP reinforces neoliberal stigma because it sharpens the link between citizenship and economic value. For RP, if you pay $20, then you are no longer one of those people, thought of as people on welfare or welfare scam artists. This is made clear in its tagline “RP is a hand up, not a hand out”- a popular expression of neoconservative ideology. RP strategically brands and markets itself in this way. In my interviews with staff, volunteers, and clients, I found they were well aware of this tagline, it had traction with them, and they used it frequently to talk about the benefits of using RP compared to other food assistance programs. The twenty dollars helps RP distinguish itself from other forms of public assistance, where people supposedly get something for nothing. At RP, $20 is the price of dignity- and clients certainly feel less stigma because they are paying $20. RP however reinforces neoliberal stigma because it makes this false distinction between people who get hand ups and those that get handouts. My argument of course is that there is no difference between these two groups- this is a social and political construction. In fact, many of the RP clients were also on some form of government assistance and getting so called handouts. Charging $20 for industrial surplus food is also an inadequate and short term solution to the problem of hunger and food insecurity.
There’s a character in the book, Lisa. She’s a white, middle-class woman who volunteers with her kids at Chum food pantry. She seems to be emblematic of whiteness in the book. What’s her story?
One of the most challenging aspects about writing this book, is that I- a person of color- am (a) making whiteness visible, and (b) critiquing white people who think they are doing good in the world. In one sense, food pantries are doing good, but they are inadequate solutions to the large scale problem of hunger linked to structural and racial injustices. In the book, I draw a link between charity and whiteness. Whiteness does not refer to all white people, but rather white people who occupy a particular privileged standpoint in the world. These are folks who live in the “good neighborhoods”, but who venture into the poor neighborhoods once a month to dole out food. Lisa is emblematic of whiteness. She is strong, works hard, [and is] understanding, articulate, rational, and logical. She is your typical self-identified white liberal woman, but more conservative than she knows. For instance, Lisa embodies the principle of “compassionate conservatism,” – she gives her time to serve hungry people, but also wants to make sure that people are not taking advantage of the food shelf. Like other whites around her, Lisa tells herself that food pantries are doing good in the world. These spaces provide an opportunity for her and her daughter to interact with the Other. They help her fulfill religious, ethical, and moral goals, but do little for food justice.
A big concern that I have about this group of people who volunteer at food pantries is that the end result is children who say, “I am so grateful for what I have” and worse still, “I am so lucky to be born white.” If the charitable industrial complex somehow resulted in people conversant in thoughts, ideas, and visions for a new food system well, that would be something—but it is not doing that. In the book, I recommend that food pantries play a revitalized role in producing new narratives that disrupt the stigma circulating around people who are poor and hungry; this means interrogating whiteness, privilege, and charity as the solution to hunger.
If, as you say, charity as we currently perform it “produces and reproduces the subordination of particular groups of people”, how do we realign our desire to help so that it is not patronizing or stigmatizing?
As middle class, elite, white, and privileged folks, we have to “help” in a different way. We have to help by standing in solidarity with people of color in their movements. We have to amplify and elevate the voices of the poor - pass the mic already! We have to help by enacting decisions that serve the interests of low income folks, not corporations, boards of directors, or the elites in the room. When we are in meetings, we need to leverage our privilege to speak out against neoliberal forces that would have us believe that hunger is the problem of the hungry. This is true of executive directors of multinational corporations, but also of old ladies who hand out food in church basements. We have to press for social policies that alleviate poverty including a living wage, affirmative action, and residential desegregation. We have to push back against policies that demand even more control, discipline, and policing of the poor and people of color. We have to say no to policies that put welfare and criminality in the same frame.
You write that food pantry clients seemed to have a deep knowledge and affinity for healthy foods but couldn’t always afford them. Yet they also really appreciated receiving brand-name products, which seemed to help them feel part of mainstream America.
There’s this really disturbing trend in the public health world that wants to “teach” poor people how to cook and “educate” them on what good food is and what bad food is. I found that my participants knew all about fresh, local, organic, and whole foods, although these foods were out of their economic reach. African American clients talked about how their families used to grow good food for white owners and now they have to pay exorbitant prices for such food and are left holding cans of bad industrial food. Many clients were willing to grow their own organic food to avoid paying high prices but did not have the land to do so. They talked about the importance of nutrition and the food-mind-body connection. Some had taken to buying vitamins, because that was a cheaper way to get their nutrition than purchasing fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. They knew how to cook up some amazing recipes like “tomato bisque soup” and “messed up eggs”. And yes, they also enjoyed getting branded food items like Coke Zeros, because these were products they could not ordinarily afford themselves. In the end, people experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance because they knew what they should be eating in theory, but could not afford to do so in practice. They suffered great anxiety about what all this bad food was doing to their bodies.
You put forth a vision of food pantries as a place not just for community building but also a space for developing racial equity. How do we move forward with implementing this vision?
Food insecurity is almost three times higher among African American and Hispanic households compared to white households. Race is not peripheral to food insecurity; it is central.
Food pantries need to tell new stories about hunger and solutions to hunger. Food pantries that recognize and are reflexive about their place in the food system and understand how they reinforce racial and class based hierarchies are already doing something transformative. Transformation happens when food pantries account for the trauma, the pain, the abuse, the grief, and the aspirations that people carry with them; when they are able to be explicit in expressing and articulating racial injustices- historical and contemporary; when they recognize, how hectic, stressful, and anxiety-ridden poverty is and make a “preferential option” to side with the poor in their struggles; when they are explicit in letting people know that it is not their fault and recognize the value, the history, the richness of who is in front of them; when they invite people who have experienced hunger to serve on their boards; when they engage volunteers and clients in political processes to advocate for the hungry and food insecure; when they allow people to interact with each other and bring people together not as volunteers and recipients, but as people who must all learn something about power. In fact, food pantries that find ways to get rid of their volunteer programs and offer up paid positions to community members do this work- – that would be a step in the right direction. This would involve training and leadership development and providing other inputs to support their work.
Food pantries can move forward in racial equity work by partnering with local groups already working on racial issues such as the NAACP, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), and other similar groups. Faculty and staff engaged in equity work at local universities can also be useful allies. Pastors and ministers of local churches have a huge role to play in shifting the charitable mindset and interrogating whiteness. Can you imagine if all the white churches affiliated with food pantries started to have real and meaningful conversations about racial equity and food justice?
This interview has been edited for length and brevity.