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White Liberals, Kids Food Basket and the Non-Profit industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

January 31, 2021

It has been a few days since the Kids Food Basket legal threat against Black organizers was made public by Defund the GRPD, the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union, Justice for Black Lives, Movimiento Cosecha GR, GR Rapid Response to ICE and the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network.

As a matter of transparency, I am involved in many of the groups that posted the legal threat from KFB, groups that are all working to create systemic change and promote collective liberation.

It has been instructive to see the reactions to the criticism of Kids Food Basket and even more instructive to see people continuing to defend Kids Food Basket even after the groups listed above posted the legal threat that was directed at two Black organizers in Grand Rapids. As Breannah R. Alexander Oppenhuizen stated, in her article for Candor Media, the legal threat by Kids Food Basket against two Black organizers was a form of violence.

Also instructive is the fact that I have written five articles over the past decade, each of which have challenged the purpose of Kids Food Basket, which engages in Food Charity, not Food Justice. I have never received a threatening letter from lawyers representing Kids Food Basket. 

Now, as someone who tries to be an accomplice with Black, Indigenous and immigrant organizers in Grand Rapids, anytime Whiteness and White Supremacy is called out, it offers those of us who are white an opportunity to think about and reflect upon our own complicity in White Supremacy and structural violence.

When far right groups show up in Grand Rapids and attempt to intimidate people, it is important for those of use who carry lots of privilege to show up and make sure that Black, Indigenous and immigrant organizers do not have to deal with armed, white nationalists. This is one way that white people can concretely practice solidarity with affected communities. However, there are others ways we can show up to challenge White Supremacy, particularly since White Supremacy is so deeply embedded in our society. And just for clarification, when I think of White Supremacy, I use the definition that has been used by long time writer and organizer Elizabeth Martinez:

White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

One can see how with this definition, White Supremacy is part of our political system, it is part of capitalism, the legal system, religious institutions, the corporate media and the non-profit sector.

Now, as white people, if we are serious about dismantling White Supremacy, then you can see how there is no shortage of work. In this article though, we are going to examine how White Supremacy is part of the non-profit sector and specifically Kids Food Basket. To have an honest investigation, we are going to use the framework for what non-profits are, based on the fabulous work by the feminist group, INCITE! Over a decade ago, the group INCITE! held a conference on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex and out of the that conference came to book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. In that book, they identify the function of non-profits, which also have a relationship with the government (must apply for a 501-c3 status, given by the State) and the Capitalist Class, which controls the majority of the wealth and also creates foundations as a way to hide some of their wealth from being taxed and to generate their own PR. INCITE! Identifies these 6 functions:

  • Monitor and control social justice movements;
  • Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  • Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  • Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  • Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
  • Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them

The issue that Kids Food Basket organizes around is child hunger and poverty. However, instead of addressing the root cause of child hunger and poverty, Kids Food Basket provides food charity. They get businesses to send them volunteers on a regular basis to put together sack lunches, which makes the volunteers feel good about themselves and it’s great PR for the entities sending volunteers.

Then Kids Food Basket relies on donations and grants to “feed children”, which lets individuals get off the hook from taking responsibility for child hunger and more importantly it allows large donors to influence how the money gets used. The DeVos family gives hundreds of thousands annually, which allows them an influential role in determining the work of Kids Food Basket, and since KFB doesn’t challenge the root causes of poverty, wealthy funders like the DeVos family are happy with what KFB does. The DeVos family spends millions during any given election cycle, to buy politicians who will keep the minimum wage low and who will make sure that the tax system benefits the super rich. If issues like these were being addressed by KFB, which are important for addressing the root causes of poverty, then the DeVos funding would likely go away.

Kids Food Basket also has substantial corporate representation on their board, such as Meijer, Amway, Huntington Bank, Williams Group and Rhoades McKee, the law firm which sent the threatening letter to the two black organizers. Having corporate representation on the board is beneficial, since these people represent the interests of the companies they work for, which is to say they will make sure that addressing root causes of poverty are avoided. For example, Meijer, a major food cartel, doesn’t pay most of their store employees a living wage, yet the wealth of Hank & Doug Meijer currently stands at $10.2 Billion, according to Forbes. The Meijer family alone could contribute thousands of dollars to the families of the children who receive KFB food charity and it still wouldn’t make a dent in their wealth.

However, the larger issue is how all the energy, resources, staff and volunteer hours are spent by Kids Food Basket, could be used to come up with real ways to address child hunger and poverty, ways that would address the root causes of that poverty. Remember, White Supremacy is about maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

Feeding children can be a powerful strategy for grassroots groups to use if they want to end poverty. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had a powerful breakfast program, but this was a program where they directly fed children in their communities, which also included an educational component. More importantly, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense didn’t just run a breakfast program, they had a 10 Point Program that reflected clear demands in order to achieve the kind of liberation they wanted to see in the world, which included economic justice.

What We Want Now!

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

This is what it means to work for the root causes of injustice, including child hunger and poverty. For those of us who are White, instead of being so quick to defend Kids Food Basket and how they promote White Supremacy, maybe we need to ask ourselves what are the root causes of hunger and poverty in our community and then work like hell to fight for the necessary changes needed, but only if those most affected want us to join the fight.

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