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From food insecurity to food justice: An uncomfortable conversation for ending hunger and poverty in West Michigan

February 25, 2019

“The major problems confronting activists committed to food justice revolve around mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and immigration.”

The quote above comes from the recent book, Food Justice Now: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle, by Joshua Sbicca. Sbicca challenges those of us who claim to be about the work of Food Justice, by forcing us to step outside of the silo of food insecurity and to look at how larger systems of oppression are the real cause of hunger and food insecurity.

The problem, too often with people who grapple with food insecurity issues, is that we try to approach the issue by first thinking about the current food system and where we can make adjustments within that system to address things like access to food, hunger, food waste, etc. However, taking such an approach often results in a continuation of that same food system, with some mild reforms.

For example, take the recent issue of snow days and food insecurity. MLive ran an article entitled, The dark side of snow days: Food insecurity.  The article focused on how many children would not be able to get the food provided to them by the group Kids Food Basket (KFB), because there was no school. The issue was also highlighted in a recent column by Kids Food Basket CEO Bridget Clark Whitney, where she talks about how the community came together to make sure that during the snow days that children were still able to access the food that KFB provides on a daily basis. Indeed, it is phenomenal how so many people stepped up to make up the food bags, those who transported the food, the coordination and all the community partners that were involved to pull it all off.

However, even when we see these acts of charity taking place on a regular basis, I am left feeling uneasy about how we are address the issue of child hunger. Considering all the effort that is put into what KFB does – the fundraising, recruiting volunteers, the partnerships with schools and putting together the 8,000 sack lunches that KFB puts together on a daily basis. This is a tremendous amount of work and coordination. But if we step back from all this effort, we are still left with the hard reality that 25% of the children living in West Michigan live in poverty. This means that the food charity work that KFB is engaged in is a growth industry, but it also means that it is ultimately a false solution.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that 8,000 children receive sack lunches on a daily basis, but this shouldn’t be the end goal. The end goal should be to eliminate poverty. Now, eliminating poverty is no easy solution and in order to do so, we need to understand the reasons why there is so much poverty in West Michigan.

Poverty in West Michigan is the result of numerous systems of power and oppression. Poverty exists because people do not earn a livable wage. Imagine if the children whom KFB serves lived in homes that were receiving a living wage. However, we know it is not just about people receiving a just wage/living wage, we know that communities of color have higher rates of poverty. In this instance we need to acknowledge that the system of White Supremacy also contributes to perpetuate poverty by privileging white people at the expense of communities of color.

Lack of a living wage and White Supremacy are still not enough to understand poverty. Let’s say that a family member ends up in the Prison Industrial Complex, which means that a primary income earner is now in jail or prison. How do families survive this dynamic and still make ends meet. How do families navigate the trauma of having a parent in jail/prison and still function in an economic system that is based on exploitation?

What about housing issues? West Michigan is in the midst of a housing boom, but that doesn’t mean that everyone benefits. There are thousands of families in the area that cannot afford the current rental rates and are unable to buy a home, especially with increased property values.

On top of all of this, you also have a political and economic class in West Michigan that not only has tremendous wealth, but they collectively work to pass legislation that make life for working class and communities of color rather difficult. 

We know that is 2016, Grand Rapids had the largest wealth gap in the state of Michigan. We also know that there are over 600 millionaires living in Kent County at the same time that 1 in 5 children are living in poverty. These disparities are not a coincidence, rather the are directly related to each other. You can not have a small minority of people making so much, without the exploitation of the many.

This brings us back to Kids Food Basket and the issue of food insecurity. How do we honestly address the issue outside of the food insecurity silo? What the author of Food Justice Now is suggesting is that instead of making food the focus of our conversation, that we shift it our focus to include a more comprehensive approach to addressing other forms of injustice and systems of power and oppression.

If the goal of any group is to eliminate hunger or poverty, what might they do in the short-term and the long-term. Here are some proposals.

Short-term Goals

While still engaging in food charity work, organizations need to adopt policies or points of unity that acknowledge that there are numerous systems of oppression at work that results in poverty and hunger. What if the mission statements from food charity and food justice organizations acknowledged that until we end White Supremacy, the economic system of Capitalism, mass incarceration, colonialism, patriarchy and other systems of oppression, we will continue to have poverty and hunger.

Next we need to make it clear that in order to end poverty and hunger, we need to support things like, the right of workers to form unions, a living wage for workers, an end to structural and systemic racism, equal pay for women, and an end to the commodification of housing, food and health care. What if groups addressing food insecurity were proposing things like community budgeting, a redirection of government spending on militarism and policing and put that money into the hands of communities to meet basic needs like housing, health care, education and good nutrition. A great example of groups that address these issues is the Movement for Black Lives, which has a very clear vision and platform for how to achieve justice for the black community, including an invest-divest policy and community control. 

We could also look at the plan developed by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a 10 point program, which does include food justice within a larger framework and vision. 

Long-term Goals

Once we have more comprehensively accepted what it will take to end poverty and hunger, we then need to work on dismantling the systems of oppression and power that are the root causes. Of course, no one individual or organization can do this. We need to form coalitions and build movements that address these issues and begin to dismantle them.

What if a group like Kids Food Basket were to work with Movimiento Cosecha GR and various labor groups to demand a minimum of $15 an hour for all workers in Kent County. This would not only provide more livable wages for families, but it would radically increase the wages of immigrant workers who do most of the food related work in this community – as migrant farm workers and restaurant workers.

What if Food Charity and Food Justice groups challenged the massive wealth gap in Kent County and called for a redistribution of wealth from the 600 millionaires that made their wealth off the backs of poor and working class people.

What if Food Charity and Food Justice groups worked with a coalition of other groups to call for massive reparations owed to the Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities in Kent County?

What if Food Charity and Food Justice groups called for a massive reduction in military spending and redirected that money for food and health care for everyone in Kent County?

If the goal of any organization that deals with food insecurity is to end food insecurity, hunger and poverty, then these are the kinds of things we will need to work on if we really want to end hunger and poverty. If not, then we will continue to do the same things we are doing now, which might make people feel good about themselves, but it will not do a damn thing to actually end hunger and poverty in our community.

Lastly, I want to say that I write these words with a recognition that I too am complicit in the ongoing hunger and poverty of people if I am not working on dismantling the systems of power and oppression that are the root causes. I am not blaming people or organizations, rather I want to challenge all of us to honestly grapple with what it is that we need to do to realistically end hunger and poverty.

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