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We need Food Justice, not Food Charity: The urgency of finding real solutions to food insecurity, poverty and structural racism

January 27, 2020

Over the years, we have posted numerous articles that challenges a food charity approach to hunger. In those articles we have challenged groups like Feeding America and Kids Food Basket.

Now, when I say we challenged these groups, I mean to challenge the strategies they employ to end hunger. It is not a bad thing for organizations to provide food relief to people who are food insecure. However, food charity is ultimately a false solution that only perpetuates food insecurity, plus it often makes the people who engage in food security work to feel better about themselves, rather than to seriously investigate the root causes of hunger.

Kids Food Basket (KFB) is a prime example of an organization that practices food charity. They provide food to elementary age children through their sack supper program. This program has received tremendous support over the years, so much so that Kids Food Basket has grown so fast, they have had to move numerous times to accommodate that growth.

Last September, KFB opened their new $7.5 million facility on Leonard St. and just last week they announced another expansion plan to provide more sack suppers to children in Ottawa and Allegan counties

This continued expansion is ultimately an expansion in charity and does nothing to address the root causes of hunger. On the website of Kids Food Basket, under their FAQ section, one question asks:

How is Kids Food Basket addressing the root causes of hunger? Their answer is that they will continue to practice a false solution, by making sack suppers. In fact, they state, “We meet immediate critical needs with our Sack Suppers and we also need organizations that do work like corner store reform, lobbying at the state and national levels for legislation that encourages universal access to food, and in other areas such as housing, transportation, and employment.”  What KFB is suggesting only addresses food access, but there is no discussion about how to fight poverty and hunger.

What are the alternatives?

  • It would be important for any and all groups who do food triage work to acknowledge that just providing food assistance on a regular basis does not solve the problem. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t practice mutual aid and assist people in a time of crisis. We absolutely should practice mutual aid when we can. However, it is not enough to just provide charity, we must work towards transformative justice.
  • Once Kids Food Basket can acknowledge that hunger is a much larger and systemic economic and racial problem, then they can, with other like-minded groups, begin to develop multi-pronged strategies to fight for economic and racial justice. 
  • They should end partnerships with corporations and families which are part of the local power structure, which supports candidates who pass policies that create more poverty.
  • Promoting and participating in a Living Wage campaign at the city/county level. Currently, many groups around the country are calling for a $15 minimum wage. However, a Living Wage would go further, because it would force us to have a much more substantial conversation about economic policy and the larger wealth gap in this community.
  • Wealth re-distribution in the form of reparations. Those families, communities and corporations which have exploited workers and communities for decades, should be required to pay back the communities, families and individuals they have exploited. This is especially the case in the African American community, which has been exploited for centuries and where reparations should begin. Kids Food Basket should call for reparations.
  • Organizations like Kids Food Basket need to adopt clear racial justice policies that recognize historical racism and how it currently in manifested in West Michigan. How is it that the people who pick most of our food in West Michigan, migrant farmworkers, have a high rate of poverty?
  • The Kids Food Basket location on Leonard St. sits on several acres that they are using to grow food. What if part of that land was used to allow people to come to this newly acquired land and grow food together, specifically the families that are benefiting from the sack supper program. KFB could provide people with the skills, transportation and child care so they could chose to be involved in producing some of their own food. This could also be done by supporting more programs in neighborhoods that are experiencing poverty, by assisting those neighborhoods with urban food production, if that is something residents want to do. This would require the use of more urban land specifically for food production.

These are only just a few suggestions, but I believe that many more creative and powerful ideas could surface if we changed the narrative around how to respond to hunger from food charity to food justice. In fact, GVSU is hosting a Food Summit this Friday, and it would be the perfect place for these kinds of conversations could be had about the need to address the root causes of hunger and to practices food sovereignty.

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