Not-So-Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck (Viking Press; 1998) is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. My hope is that this book will provoke discussion in the nonprofit hunger industry, but Larry Brown’s safe summary [Public Health Rep 1999:114:381-3] just ratifies the obvious.

The nonprofit hunger industry acts as though hunger were an emergency, rather than a chronic problem. There is no food shortage in the United States. Many low-income people have a problem of access to food, just as they have difficulty accessing housing, health care, employment, education, and child care. The problem is not that low-income people have no money for food; they simply don’t have enough money.

Janet Poppendieck and Larry Brown, who are part of the academic branch of the nonprofit hunger industry, are wedded to government funding for programs that require financial verifications and rob low-income people of their dignity. Low-income people, especially lowincome working families, do not want to and should not have to spill their financial guts and depend on charity or government for their next meal. Charities and government are too busy making people prove their poverty, spending money and energy on obtaining verifications that could be spent providing access to food.

In Sweet Charity, Poppendieck understates the impact of the “corporatization” of the hunger network. Second Harvest, the national network of food banks, has become so institutionalized that local food banks can’t work with innovative local programs without violating their relationship with the network.

The hunger network in my state, Massachusetts, acts out the pathology of the national hunger network.. A local hospital has three pantries because individual egos will not work together. Some pantries turn away working low-income people. Few pantries are open weekends and evenings because volunteers and paid staff don’t want to work those hours.

To find a solution to hunger in America, we need to look at the problem in new ways. Low-income people need access to affordable food. We need to begin to look at affordable models that can restore pantries to their original role: an emergency source of food in a true crisis such as a natural disaster, job loss, or hospital bill that swallows up the monthly food money. Massachusetts has two such programs— SHARE New England, a food co-op, and Fair Foods, which distributed approximately eight million pounds of bread, fruits, and vegetables to low-income people in 1999. Both programs require no income verifications, encourage low-income peo.