Edited by Najwa Jamal
Dropping a can of soup into a grocery store donation bin. Giving a few dollars to a food pantry each holiday season. Hunger seems to be an inevitable part of society, one that can be minimized by everyone doing their part. Charity has led many to believe that people who are hungry simply need the help of those who have access to food.
If inadequate food production is the issue underlying hunger, then the United States would not be hungry. According to the 2010 USDA Census of Agriculture, the United States produces enough food to provide 4,000 calories per person per day; the recommended average is 2,000 calories per day. 30-40% of our food supply is thrown out, and in the Hudson Valley, waste facilities report that 18% of our waste stream is composed of food.
And yet, over a tenth of Dutchess, Ulster, Orange and Putnam counties’ populations are on a government-subsidized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. Even more are considered food insecure. Hunger levels skyrocket where residents have lower income levels and minimized access to grocery stores. One in four (26%) Poughkeepsie households face food insecurity, causing 24% to receive SNAP benefits and 15% relying on emergency food sources like local churches, food pantries, or food banks.
National and federal governments have started food pantries and attempted to increase subsidy programs. Some communities know this isn’t enough, and have begun community fridges or food distribution programs. Many Americans who can afford excess food are encouraged to buy another can of soup for the donation bin at the grocery store, or to drop an occasional bag of apples off at community fridge projects. Some may even donate a few dollars to food banks. But, these systems of purchasing more for charity purposes don’t reach the root of the problem of hunger.
Poughkeepsie Plenty’s 2014 Community Food Assessment identified poverty and transportation access as the two main barriers to accessing food. Food banks began as a short-term emergency solution, but have become a way of life for 15% of households in Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, large corporations that stock said pantries through donation systems are motivated by benefiting their own corporate image. They avoid surpluses, keep their own prices high, and receive positive community feedback. Nonetheless, these same corporations are continually abandoning low-income and minority communities of color, establishing business in wealthier, “safer,” and “cleaner” neighborhoods. The result? Racialized areas of low food access, white communities today have four times as many grocery stores as Black communities nationwide. And because the presence of stores like the Dollar General and Walmart is strongest in areas with high rates of SNAP participants, SNAP dollars are funnelled directly into their pockets. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office recently released a report that put these notoriously low-paying chains as the top employers of SNAP dollar receiving employees. The closed system continues, as these companies, barely providing a livable wage for workers, receive SNAP dollars spent by their own employees.
Yes, food banks are feeding people each day who would otherwise go hungry. But the final goal cannot end at food banks, or even community-controlled mutual aid programs. We must reach deeper into the systems that keep people relying on these programs year after year.
The Kingston Emergency Food Collaborative is a community run delivery service of groceries and prepared meals that began at the start of COVID-19 in March 2020. Their goal is eventually to go “out of business,” by tackling the root causes that create the need for their services. They ask: why is the Ulster County Department of Social Services willing to house people in hotels and aid in SNAP registration (both of which cost thousands of taxpayer dollars), but unwilling to invest in long term solutions for affordable housing, transportation, and higher minimum wages?
If we learn that hunger is political, we can replace the rhetoric of charity with a rhetoric of solidarity. Tackling our unwilling governments and corporate control of food access and food distribution is the only solution to achieving food security in our communities.