Emergency Food: A Moral Safety Valve?


By Janet Poppendieck


354 pp., $26.95

In 1979, there were 30 emergency food providers in New York City. By 1997 the number was nearly 1,000 - an explosive growth rate reflected across the nation.

Yet ironically, after all this growth, America is no closer to ending hunger. In fact, things may be getting worse. The 1996 welfare reform act cut nearly $4 billion a year in food stamps - about four times the amount of food provided through charity organizations.

While millions of Americans have been involved in food charity at some level, this shortfall helps explain why some of the sharpest critics of emergency food are longtime providers at the heart of the system.

In "Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement," Janet Poppendieck introduces us to the vastness and variety of Americans' efforts to relieve hunger.

Without negating this heartening, heartfelt overflow of spirit, she also reveals how fundamentally inadequate the overall effort has been.

We meet legions of inspiring people like John Van Hengel, who started the first food bank in Phoenix almost by accident in the late 1960s, and Jill Staton Bullard, a North Carolina soccer mom, who started a food-shuttle service that distributes 40,000 pounds of food a week that would otherwise be thrown away by restaurants.

But we also meet Tom Lockie, a soup kitchen volunteer in Immokalee, Fla., who observes, "We don't get too much national policy that allows for taking care of people in a more meaningful fashion." Those he feeds are mostly farm workers, low-paid, seasonally employed, and living in high-priced, overcrowded housing.

Alongside tales of compassion, commitment, and inspiration, Poppendieck does much more than confront us with the paradoxes and frustrations these people face; she sets out to explain them.

The early 1980s saw the identification of hunger as a designated social problem. The first explosion of the emergency-food system was built on the assumption that hunger represented a temporary need.

The forces unleashed by global economic restructuring were far too large, novel, and complex for people to grasp compared with the timeless immediacy of hunger as a symptom.

"Certainly such massive changes were not likely to be effectively addressed by dishing out soup and handing out grocery baskets," she observes. Yet, because an immediate response to hunger was so necessary, emergency food could elicit broad support, despite deep policy differences over poverty and inequality. Furthermore, focusing on hunger assured people - often falsely - that the problems facing them were only temporary.

Poppendieck combines a firm grasp of these and other underlying factors with a command of the political battles of the time. She lucidly illuminates the growing split between complex social problems and the common representation of "hunger," while honoring the genuine goodwill and hard work of those who make the best of this disheartening situation.

Interwoven with this account is another thread - from the Great Depression to the Contract With America - concerning the ways emergency food aid serves as a "moral safety valve," relieving pressure for a truly adequate solution, while providing a false sense of moral accomplishment.

The special genius of "Sweet Charity" is Poppendieck's ability to combine insight into systemic failings with profound respect for individual moral commitments. She moves us to seek out ways that the impulse toward charity can be instructed by wisdom and transformed into a quest for justice.

* Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.

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