Land of soup kitchens

Sweet charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck (Penguin, 1999) is an interesting and well-documented analysis of the process by which hunger emerged as a problem in the United States. Local assistance payments to destitute individuals drifted downwards in the 1980s and were the frequent target of cut-backs in the 1990s. Over the same period, the minimalistic federal Supplemental Security Income programme for the aged and disabled barely kept up with rising housing costs. The value of family allowances (AFDC) has been declining since 1989 and it is no longer sufficient to cover real rents and leave enough for food. The food stamp programme is based on an outdated calculation of needs and a highly restrictive means test. In the early 1980s, however, the Reagan administration operated cut-backs in Medicaid, housing assistance, energy assistance, unemployment compensation, income support and food assistance.

Given that this all took place during a major recession, the effects of the cut-backs were immediately felt by charity workers operating in the field of food relief :

“It used to be just two or three people a day coming for food,” Brother Giles Needler of the San Damiano Friary told a New York Times reporter late in 1981. “Now it seems that the doorbell is always ringing. And before it was the knights of the road. Now it’s mothers with five kids, families.”

Before long the existing network of soup kitchens was swamped with the “New Poor”. A survey undertaken by the Centre for Budget and Policy Priorities finding that in some 16 areas demand for emergency food had increased by 50 percent between 1982 and 1983. In a third of agencies demand had doubled.

But whilst this was not, in itself, sufficient to shift attention towards the soup kitchen ‘solution’, two events more or less guaranteed the emphasis placed on emergency food. The first of these was the substantial cut-backs in the food stamp and child nutrition programmes. The fact that hundreds of individuals were involved in the food assistance programmes that had been cut, meant that a highly articulate lobby could use what appeared as a food emergency to focus attention on what was, in fact, a larger problem of social deprivation, unemployment and homelessness :

“It takes a while to lose your home, but you get hungry right away, and when you do, it is hard to think about anything else.”

The second even was the discovery of massive stockpiles of surplus dairy products created by agricultural price support. These products cost a lot to store and could well have gone to waste. So, naturally, enough attention focused on this food, the government seeking to deflect criticism by distributing what was often mouldy cheese to individuals prepared to wait in line in the middle of winter to receive it. This food distribution was helped along by a small army of volunteer workers. What happened next was entirely predictable:

“With hunger a recurrent topic on the nightly news, and dairy surpluses calling attention to the abundance of food available, a sort of snowball process occurred in many communities. As more kitchens and pantries sprang up, more food drives and appeals for financial support were organised, more people became involved with hunger-related activities, and more hunger stories appeared in the press.”

The voluntary effort was encouraged by city heads and belatedly endorsed by the Reagan government. This transformed the individual emergencies into a social emergency. Pretty soon, the distribution of other food surpluses (rice, cornmeal, and honey) was pressed for and obtained whilst the federal government intervened to provide financial and logistical support. In the mid-1980s projects were irrupting right across America, helped in this by the government which was by this time providing grants to local administrations.

The fact that reformers concentrated most of their attention on hunger led to the demand for subsidies for emergency food programmes whilst encouraging concerned citizens to step into the breach which had been opened up by the government. This was clearly detrimental to the demands for the restoration of statutory entitlements. Yet the shortcomings of emergency food aid are well documented. It is more often than not insufficient, nutritionally inadequate, and inappropriate. The supply of food is subject to the vagaries of market surpluses; cheese one week, peanut butter the next. Distribution points are often inaccessible and geographical distribution tends to be patchy. The incredible inefficiency involved in improvising a food distribution system contrasts with the sophisticated commercial operation which panders to the needs of the financially solvent :

“This nation has a food distribution system that is famous all over the world for its ability to deliver variety and economy to even the most remote places in the country. Ironically, the period in which soup kitchens and food pantries have proliferated is also a period that has seen the reduction of supermarket availability in many inner-city neighbourhoods.”

Even by the narrow standards of the food stamp programmes, soup kitchens are a logistical non-starter. Food stamps at least have the advantage of allowing a modicum of participation in what’s left of the commercial set-up in poor neighbourhoods. So why build a food distribution system from scratch? The answer, of course, is that charity mobilises unpaid voluntary labour. It can therefore afford to be profligate with regard to the utilisation of human energy. The fact that recipients have few alternatives means that there is little need to closely tailor supply to needs. More importantly, because charity is uncertain it removes poverty from the public domain of statutory requirements and therefore releases pressure to raise welfare levels. Not to put a finer point on it, it’s cheap.


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