When Crisis Mode Becomes the Norm: Interrupting a System of Emergency with a System of Justice

West Michigan is known for its deeply rooted and abundant philanthropy. In the food access sector we have hundreds of non-profits, churches, and agencies working to address hunger and food insecurity via an emergency charity food system that is now over four decades old.  

As the global pandemic hit our local community, food access organizations that existed before COVID-19, and those that started due to COVID-19, have worked to respond to the lack of access to food heightened by the virus and its economic impacts. There are many community members struggling as a result of this current crisis, but disparities related to issues such as income, housing, and food existed long before this virus came along.  

COVID-19 is effectively revealing the systemic inequities that must be addressed by a systemic approach. Handouts through free meal sites, food pantries, or food banking are categorized as emergency charity and do not address the deeply rooted injustices that create experiences of poverty on an individual and community level. A true economic crisis, like COVID-19, creates an emergency situation that amplifies deep disparities, and deserves an immediate response to address the emergency, followed closely behind by a long-term plan to ensure that disparities are addressed through proactive strategy, not a continued emergency response.  

Unfortunately, in the history of the charitable food system in the U.S., proactive strategy to cultivate a thriving local food system has not widely been adopted. During the recession of the early 1980’s a bounty of non-profits emerged to meet basic needs. These emergency hand-out programs were set up as a temporary solution and lacked long-term strategy. But those programs involved people who wanted jobs, supported corporations who wanted customers, and served the needs of wealthy citizens that wanted to volunteer and feel good about their investment into helping the poor. Fast forward four decades and many of the thousands of non-profit organizations set up as temporary responses are still operating in the same ways and supporting a multitude of veiled interests, beyond their stated missions to help people.  

If the ecosystem of the non-profit sector in our community is primarily focused on hand outs, low-income communities will suffer long-term. If we continue to perpetuate typical charitable models, we will further thrust people into poverty by creating a system built not on resilient systems of workforce, housing, and food, but on philanthropy. These concepts have been well-examined in international aid structures but unfortunately, the same analysis has not been applied to the domestic charity food system. The charity food system wields an immense amount of power to destroy the assets of low-income communities and destroy local workforce, food businesses, and innovation created by historically disinvested communities.  

This is how the emergency food system in the U.S. has operated – by nature, as a system it has been transactional, reactive, disempowering, racist, and paternalistic. Within that system are good-hearted people who have not intended to do harm while intending to do good, but like many systems, there are deep flaws that have created negative outcomes for low-income communities in the areas of health and wealth.  

The recognition of a flawed charity food system need not result in the shuttering of all food access sites, but rather should give our community the impetus to limit charity food response and not allow it to continue as the primary way by which we address access to good food for all. A recent count showed that there are over 300 free food sites or programs taking place throughout Kent County. This includes food pantries, backpack programs, meal sites, snack programs, senior meals, school feeding sites, and home deliveries of meals and groceries (source: Feeding America West Michigan, Heart of West Michigan United Way). We should be grateful that Kent County was ready to quickly set up a safety net for food access for COVID-19, however, we must be willing to create space for long-term planning that transitions us from emergency response, as well as take the opportunity afforded by COVID-19 to radically reimagine the system we’ve created to address food access issues. 

Janet Poppendieck, in her 1998 sociological critique of the charity food system stated that “supply creates demand,” meaning that as free food and a charity food system became normalized and institutionalized in the U.S. usage increased in a directly proportionate degree. That means that in Kent County, as our pantry service numbers grew after 2009, it was possibly because we opened pantries for more hours, opened new pantries, advertised our services more, increased staff and food donations to accommodate, and continued to build space and capacity around a model that was formed out of reaction. The more we feed this model, the larger it will grow. The more we extend free services, the more they will be used. The more we rely on charity systems, the more we kill the local economy, local entrepreneurship, and grassroots ingenuity.  

Emergency food sites are the primary system by which our country addresses the symptoms of poverty. In a post-COVID era, the more we invest in this system, the less we will invest in advocating for an adequate living wage, implementing policies that support wealth creation in historically disinvested areas, or into overturning a food system that operates primarily off of cheap and racist labor practices. 

Limiting the charity food system and reimagining food access requires that we invest in deep-reaching solutions that are value-oriented and develop the local workforce, support fair agricultural practices, promote community health, and recognize injustice and historic racial oppression. We need to use real data, instead of emotional stories. We need to recognize and trust the power held by low-income communities, stepping aside to support the resilience and innovation of community leadership in times of adversity instead of believing that we are the saviors or solvers of the challenges of these communities. It is easy to do the easiest thing, such as giving hand-outs. It is much harder to go deep, bring diverse people together, and form long-term strategies to reduce poverty and inequity. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to food insecurity, not one formula for how to build equitable local and regional food systems. And there shouldn’t be. Solutions, in order to be effective, must be rooted in grassroots initiatives, collaboration, creative problem-solving and be led by those who make up a community. Each neighborhood, county, state, and region will have its own unique assets to do the work from the ground up. From food cooperatives and fresh market corner stores, to community land ownership and policy changes in support of fair labor practices, the solutions are endless.  

For more information on topics discussed in the article see: 

 Written by the Access of West Michigan Good Food Systems Team


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