Waking the Sleeping Dragon: A pathway for food banks to create an equitable food system – A Dialogue with Jan Poppendieck

Jan Poppendieck’s book on the emergency food provision system, entitled ‘Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement’ was released in 1998. It is a book I only came across a year or so ago, and  for me it was like discovering some secret artifact that confirmed all the things I had come to believe after six years of running a soup kitchen for the homeless and four years running a food bank.

I now ask new leadership team members in our organization to read the book as background to why ‘charity’ alone cannot solve the nutrition issues we are facing. Jan has been active both as an academic and also serving on the board of Why Hunger? in NYC, amongst others. She has most recently written “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” . I spoke to Jan last week.

Jan Poppendieck

How have things changed since you wrote Sweet Charity?

Not enough. Nevertheless, foodbankers are escaping from the emergency mentality. They have been in this business so long now that they know that the short term emergency is not the whole story. The implication is that if we are not feeding people for only the short term, then we have to pay much closer attention to the nutritional impact of our actions. This means there has been much more awareness of the need for fresh produce within the network.

Sue Sigler, the ED of the California Association of Food Banks recently told me that she thought ‘Sweet Charity’ was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing food banks into the public policy realm, which was an area considered best avoided prior to 1999.

That’s flattering. I hope I helped move the discussion along. Certainly, the food bank network is more visible and active in public policy advocacy now, especially in the fight to protect TEFAP and SNAP. There is lots of room for more engagement too. I imagine the foodbanking network as a sleeping dragon that if it could mobilize all of the soup kitchen and pantry staff and clients and volunteers and supporters and board members, we would have a very loud voice in public policy. It is a huge challenge of course, but even mobilizing some of them could be very effective.

Do you think this group should be mobilized around what to enshrine or include in a specific piece of legislation like the Farm Bill, or do you think it has to be a wider, less specific mobilization around a cause.

That’s an interesting question. Like most others in the policy world I live from crisis to crisis or opportunity to opportunity. Fighting cutbacks on SNAP while the economy is suffering like it is now is something that has to be done, but it tends to draw all of our energy and attention. It is harder to move from responding to an immediate threat to a more visionary approach to public policy, where we are looking downstream at what kind of country we want to live in, and what kind of people do we want to be. Emergency food provision can be a tough place to start this discussion from.

That’s exactly why some are trying to find a new and powerful place – the public health arena – from where food banks and their network of 64,000 member agencies can have a fresh kind of leverage and  credibility to operate from, one that is underpinned by a long-term preventative health approach. I believe this path can be less divisive within our political landscape where ‘division’ seems to be the current approach to problem solving. If we look back at the fight against tobacco, it was not couched in terms of ‘haves’ giving charity to help ameliorate the conditions of the ‘have-nots’, but in terms of what was smart for the future health of the country. We need to take that same approach with nutrition.

One of the great things about the history of public health is that it has always stressed interventions that would target hazards or sources of ill health in the population and in the environment, as well as changes in individual behavior. On your From Hunger to Health site, where you run through the ‘Lovely Leptin’ and the ‘Ghastly Ghrelin’ – that is the clearest presentation I have seen about why distributing highly processed foods leads to hunger and obesity. The education with food approach that you are taking is right, because if it leads to us to being able to draw in the grass roots – the little church food pantry in the low-income neighborhood – it could produce a massive movement for change that would lead to a demand for healthier food, and public policies which would promote the production of healthier food.

The public health community often has a top-down approach. They indicate that they’ve done the research and know what is bad for us and are busy getting the word out through all sorts of messaging. But somehow they don’t encourage a process whereby people are able to discover this out for themselves and deduce what kind of changes are needed, for instance in what is available in their local store at a fair price. If food banking could become the pathway by which food insecure Americans began to assert their power towards a healthier food supply, it would be fantastic.

That is what an increasing number of food banks are beginning to promote. Outreach in the past often meant drawing people into our programs, then it became more focused on promoting SNAP. If you look at what  Santa Cruz are trying to do with their Ambassadors Program or we are trying to do with our Nutritional Advisory Committees, it is moving things to the next step of empowerment.

Certainly there is more specific interest from Feeding America out of their new strategic plan, in what is possible by ‘mobilizing the public.’ Though I believe there is still a little too much emphasis on that mobilization being focused on people ‘telling their stories’ to the end of helping us highlight the continuing seriousness of food insecurity, rather than taking the next step and empowering them to move beyond their stories and become more involved in creating a local food system that truly looks after their health. It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of ground-up work that leads to true transformation.

I think that this is how things need to happen. We can’t end hunger with more and more food. Mounting inequality means that our public policy is typically made by those who can afford private schools and boutique medical care and gated communities. They are the ones making decisions about how much to invest in the public solutions that are there for the rest of us. They need to hear the voices of those who they are there to serve, or we need to replace them with people who share our interests and problems.

Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, University of California Press, 2011

Your most recent book “Free For All” looks at another puzzle palace of American nutrition, the school food system and the need for it to be reformed. Is there a link between the subject matter of these two books?

Both books are all about how average families get by. School food is so important, because the more human needs we can have met through normalized situations like the provision of a healthy school lunch, then the less people have to become marginalized and forced into seeking emergency solutions.

Also, school cafeterias used to be instructional and have an educational function – to teach kids how to eat well. I would say this is something we need more than ever, to compensate for the distortions in diet that are a consequence of the fortunes spent in selling non-nutritious food-like products to kids.

Thanks Jan, for your work and your vision.

2 thoughts on “Waking the Sleeping Dragon: A pathway for food banks to create an equitable food system – A Dialogue with Jan Poppendieck

  1. Pingback: Divided We Stand? Facing the challenges of Collective Impact, Corporate Philanthropy, Earned Income and more – A dialogue with Jan Masaoka, ED of CALNonprofits. « From Hunger to Health

  2. Pingback: Toxic Charity : How service organizations Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) « From Hunger to Health

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