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Food Charity or Food Justice? Reporting on Hunger in Grand Rapids

September 7, 2011

Yesterday, a new project between the Grand Rapids Press and The Rapidian began in what they are calling the Grand Rapids Hunger Challenge.

Hunger Challenge Week is September 14 – 20, a these two local news entities decided that as a way of making people aware of hunger and food insecurity they would have a writer from each news outlet try to live off of a $30.59 a week food budget.

The Day 1 article on MLive talks about how both of the writers went shopping for food with their limited budget. The Press writer talked about being at a birthday party and not being able to eat ice cream and cake, while The Rapidian writer talks about how she was once herself on food assistance.

The Rapidian also has an opinion piece that has some useful statistics on hunger and the number of people who rely on food stamps, but the article, like the ones by the writers taking the “hunger challenge” do little to really address hunger and poverty in West Michigan.

Having people who have a certain level of class privilege try to follow a budget of people who are truly poor is a bit disingenuous. These kinds of exercises are like the “poverty simulations” that charity groups put on or the Planned Famines that high school church groups organize so that privileged kids can somehow understand what starving and malnourished children feel like. However, these attempts to sensitize people do not ask the fundamental and important reasons for why people in the richest nation in the world are going hungry.

Both the Press article and the Rapidian pieces never address the causes of hunger in the US. Having their writers try to live on a fixed food budget tends to put the emphasis on personal responsibility instead of systemic factors.

One of the oldest anti-hunger education organizations in the US is Food First. Food First has been working on both dispelling the myths about hunger and providing analysis of both food insecurity and how to actively organize against it. Food First looks at Food Deserts and how large monopoly grocery chains are buying up land in urban areas with little access to real food with their claim to “serving” poor communities.

Food First also addresses issues of economic and racial inequality and how that impacts who has access to food and what kind of food people have access to. In an excellent report on youth and food justice, the report looks at how there is a relationship to Jim Crow policies and the kind of food system we have in the US.

There is also a growing movement in the US that is advocating food justice, not food pantries. Food justice involves more urban food production, access to land for people to grow more of their own food, limitations on fast food restaurants being built in poor communities, community kitchens, Community Supported Agriculture and the efforts to challenge the grossly unjust food system we have in the US that is publicly funded through the Farm Bill.

In fact, Food and Water Watch is doing a national campaign to address the failed food system we have in the US and is even organizing in Grand Rapids. Their first meeting on this project to reform the Farm Bill will be held on September 21st at 7pm in the WMEAC building in Grand Rapids.

This kind of information and local analysis would not only address systemic reasons why people go hungry in West Michigan, it would challenge the charity-based food efforts that drive too much of hunger awareness in this community.

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