Charitable Food Won’t Solve Hunger

The term “food bank” invokes a mental image of abundance. A bank is a place of vaults, stockpiles, and savings; somewhere we know we can go when we need to retrieve something. A place that is vast, powerful, and will always be there. Each morning when I walk into the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, that image is reinforced. I pass through the alcoves of a massive warehouse, with bins of food and goods lining the walls and stacked on shelves 20 feet high into the air.

But to dwell on the image of abundance is to take away a very skewed message. The reason this food bank stands‒ along every other food bank, pantry, cupboard, and closet in the country‒ is not because of abundance. It’s because of need.

It seems obvious that the charitable food system is there to support people who don’t have enough to eat. But why is food stockpiled in these specific locations for people to come get when they are hurting, rather than already available to all people as they live out their daily lives? In our nation of plenty, we have an allocation problem; enough food exists, but it’s only truly accessible to some.

Food access is so deeply connected to equity and justice, and those of us who have ready access to food are beneficiaries of the same structures that restrict other people’s access to it. It’s no coincidence that lower-income neighborhoods often have fewer grocery stores and limited availability of health-promoting foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. In general, unemployment rates are higher, wages are lower, and chronic health conditions occur with much greater frequency. Each of these factors feeds into the others‒ low wages make nutritious food less affordable, which decreases health and wellness, increases sick time and medical expenses, and stymies opportunity for education, career advancement, and higher earnings. As members of society, we all have the responsibility to look at how oppressing and often inescapable this cycle of poverty is, and to understand that being born into situation like this is a reality for so many people in our country.

My AmeriCorps term has prompted me to think more about my own privilege through this lense. Really, my service at the Food Bank itself hearkens back to privilege; I clock in and consider the issues of poverty and food insecurity for 8 hours a day, but then I’m able to step out of it and back into my world where I have never had to worry about where my next meal will come from. It is perplexing to me that entire organizations and careers exist solely because of the fact that some people don’t have enough food to live a normal and healthy life.

Yet, I believe in the mission of this food bank, and I see and hear firsthand in the communities I work with that emergency food is absolutely necessary. Talking about systemic inequalities and structural injustices does nothing for a family of 6 whose entire income is going toward rent and utilities, and needs help in this moment so their children can eat a meal tonight. Although food insecurity is a deeply-rooted problem, it is one that creates a lot of immediate need, and food banks and food pantries have come to exist as an interim response.

I am grateful for how this service experience has pushed me to think more critically about food charity. Though it sounds on the surface like a warm, fuzzy, nice thing‒ who doesn’t love that picture of “giving” to other people?‒ it’s really a reminder of how injustice is still thriving in our world, and how changing that will mean changing some things that are currently allowing a lot of us to live comfortably while other people around us struggle.

I love the Food Bank, and the many different pantries I work with who are meeting urgent needs and helping stabilize communities throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. And, still, my real hope is for the day that every single one of them is obsolete.

This post was written by NPHC member Amanda Mayer.

Amanda serves at Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank as a Health Educator.