Food Charity or Food Justice: Part II

(Another thought provoking post from

SEPTEMBER 16, 2011
by Jeff Smith (GRIID)

Last week we pointed out the problem with local journalists in their attempts to try to live off a fixed food budget as part of the Hunger Challenge Week in Grand Rapids.

We pointed out that their investigation should have focused on looking at the causes of hunger in West Michigan, instead of engaging in an exercise that, while well intentioned, did not actually look at addressing hunger.

Today, MLive ran a story about a local program that addresses hungry children, called Kids Food Basket. In that story, both the director of the organization, Bridget Clark Whitney, and board member Mary Ann Prisichenk both make statements that the organization is not interested in politics or the causes of poverty……..they just want to feed hungry kids.

Whitney is quoted as saying; “There are a variety of socioeconomic factors that come into play with kids and hunger, but … the bottom line is that kids need to get fed. What we say we will do — and we are doing — is attacking hunger.”

Attacking hunger is the agency’s catch phrase, which can be seen on its website over and over again. The agency acknowledges that hunger and poverty are a problem in the Grand Rapids area, citing the statistic that “36,860 children living in Kent County are food insecure.” The charity agency also noted that, “From 2000 to 2008, Grand Rapids had the largest spike in poverty among any US city at 8.9%.”

In the “why” section of their website the agency also states that nutrition is the basis of brain development and Childhood hunger is a national priority that must be addressed at the grassroots. Both of these statements are important, but it is the latter, which I think it is important to address.

First, let me just state upfront that the fact that Kids Food Basket feeds hungry children is important in that it does a form of triage work, where an immediate need is met. However, if our community is serious about attacking the problem of hunger, it is essential that we get the root of the causes of why 36,860 children in Kent County don’t have enough healthy food to eat.

Every year there are major food drives in this city. People through churches, businesses and non-profits donate food for the food bank system. Thousands of people volunteer at the soup kitchens and deliver meals to shut-ins and other vulnerable populations, along with the kind of work that Kids Food Basket does. These activities can help put a human face on hunger and often will make us feel good that we in some small way made a difference.

However, if we never get to the point of asking the question of why 36,860 children in Kent County don’t have enough to eat on a daily basis, then we are ultimately doing them a disservice. The number of children in poverty is clearly on the rise and there is no sign that this trend with change. In fact, it is likely that the number of children living in poverty and going hungry will increase, since at the local, state and federal level there are ongoing funding cuts for social programs and a drum beat from politicians on the need to implement further “austerity measures.”

If attacking hunger means that we just feed hungry children then we might as well just plan on doing this the rest of our lives and finding a whole lot more people to do it with us. If, however, we want to end hunger then we will have to look hard at both our economic system and who has wealth in this society. As Raj Ratel and many others in the food justice movement will tell you, the current food system and economic system are designed in such a way that lots of people will be malnourished.

We need for the people at the Kids Food Basket to keep feeding hungry children, but we also need for them and all the other agencies, which do food charity work, to begin to come to terms with the causes of childhood hunger. Once we have collectively wrapped our heads around those causes we can then develop a strategy to really attack hunger by eliminating it.

Some of this strategy might include challenging the existing system of food production in the US knows as agri-business. In this system food is grown as a commodity to be traded and not as a form of sustenance for all people.

One way to take on the agri-business system would be to have a real grassroots effort to alter federal funding it what is known as theFarm Bill. More importantly, we need a mass movement to take food production out of the hands of corporations and into the hands of regular people.

In order for these more systemic changes to take place we need to have a serious public conversation about hunger and food justice. If then, we are serious about eliminating hunger in our community we need all those who do the food charity work to support and endorse food justice work. Food justice work may not be as popular and it is in many ways work that is much more difficult to do. In fact, we can count on systems of power that will resist those efforts, but I for one think it is a much nobler goal to end hunger than to perpetuate its existence because we didn’t ask why people were hungry. As the great Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camera once said, “I brought food to the hungry and people called me a saint. I asked why people were hungry and people called me a communist.” 

One thought on “Food Charity or Food Justice: Part II

  1. AMEN! I became aware of the roots of hunger approach (and most groups’ efforts to avoid it) when in Iowa, where the presence of so much corn and soybeans, none of which will actually be food that Americans will directly eat, is evident every day.

    The real cause of hunger has to do with the crap food that we produce, which is connected to keeping food prices low, and preventing social unrest do to real food prices.

    Randy Gabrielse

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