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Feeding Hunger, Feeding Stigma

How food banks help and hurt.

USDA Photo by Preston Keres/Flickr
Source: USDA Photo by Preston Keres/Flickr

by Alexandra Brewis and Amber Wutich

It’s the holiday season, a time for giving. Volunteering at food banks is a part of many families' traditions, as they donate food, money, or time. It makes people feel good to help others. But it also makes us ask: Are food banks the best way to get food to people who don’t have enough?

Social scientist Rebecca de Souza argues in her 2019 book Feeding the Other that food banks may be doing more harm than good. Many donors, she says, see food bank beneficiaries as less-than-worthy. They believe people who depend on food banks must do so because they are lazy. So, they deserve less.

This stigma cascades down, making many food banks fail to serve those who need them as well as they should. Donations tend to be unwanted, leftover, and expired foods. Good Samaritan laws prevent donors from held liable if those foods prove unsafe.

And the stigma against people who use food banks isn’t reflected only in the substandard food that gets donated. It’s also apparent in how people reliant on food banks report being treated. Volunteers are often given a separate parking lot, entrance, and bathrooms from food bank beneficiaries.

Many food banks are not designed so volunteers and beneficiaries mix and mingle—in fact, they rarely “break bread” together. The feeling that using food banks marks you as less-worthy is embarrassing, even humiliating. It’s also a reason that some people who are hungry avoid them altogether.

So, how can seasonal donors and volunteers help make food banks work for everyone this holiday season? Social scientist Rebecca De Souza recently completed a four-year study of two food pantries in Duluth, Minnesota. She studied the stigmatizing attitudes toward people using food banks as “lazy” and “useless,” and how this undermined efforts to feed those in need.

Her new book has some concrete suggestions for how volunteers can make more of a difference. Talk to people who use food banks. Be open to listening and learning: People who have experienced poverty and hunger have important insights into how our society works (and doesn’t). Treat the food bank as a community-building site, not just a place to give out food.

And remember that food banks are not a solution to hunger in our communities. They are just the very first step.

References

de Souza, R. T. (2019). Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries. MIT Press.

Garthwaite, K. (2016). Stigma, shame and 'people like us': an ethnographic study of foodbank use in the UK. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 24(3), 277-289.

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