Thursday, December 13, 2012

Breadlines, Sweet Charity and Beyond

Breadlines, Sweet Charity and Beyond: a conversation with Jan Poppendieck and Nick Saul is a webinar I attended this morning, sponsored by Community Food Centres Canada.  Essentially a way of bringing an audience to a talk, rather than bringing a speaker to an audience, and as such it worked pretty well. Sadly, there was no Q&A session at the end, but the interview with Janet Poppendieck was very interesting.
Janet Poppendieck is the author of three food security related books: Breadlines Knee Deep In Wheat: Food assistance in the Great Depression, Sweet Charity?: Emergency food and the end of entitlement, and Free For All: Fixing school food in America. Amazingly, I haven't read any of them yet (in my defense, I've got at least three books on the go at the moment, and a stack of unread volumes on my desk, to say nothing of the ones on hold at the library).
The discussion ranged from a brief overview of the history of the food re-distribution movement, to changes in the way food banks (Canada) and community pantries (US) have changed. For example, how food banks were seen in the early '80s and being an emergency response to a short-term situation to becoming a structural part of food delivery.  A great example of this is the Boston Food Bank's 117,000 sq. ft. building. Or, as Mark Bittman reports in the New York Times:
Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.
As I've pointed out far too often, this was the result of a series of political decisions we made under Mulroney (Canada), Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK). And once made, there has been no effort expended to reverse them; private charity has had to make up for imposed structural inequality. And with 1 in 8 Americans using SNAP (what used to be called food stamps), the problems is embedded in the current system. Jan Poppendieck pointed this out when she said words to the effect of " People who care about the poor have to focus on what's happening at the top. This is not just about growing poverty, but about growing inequality." Again from Mark Bittman's article Hunger In Plain Sight:
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs brought the poverty level down to 11 percent from 20 percent in less than 10 years. Ronald Reagan began the process of dismantling that minimal safety net, and as a result the current poverty level is close to 16 percent, and food stamps are not fully doing their job. “There was a time in this country,” says Maryland Food Bank president and C.E.O. Deborah Flateman, “when food stamps had practically eliminated hunger; then the big cuts happened, and we’ve been trying to recover ever since.”
The situation is quite similar in Canada. As in the US, snack foods have become cheaper while fresh foods have become more expensive--and prices are expected to rise considerably as we move into 2013. 
All in all, I have to say that this has been a positive experience--I like the whole webinar idea. The Stop Commmunity Food Centre's Learning Network is planning to post the audio portion of he webinar soon (I'll likn to it then), and, I think, did a good job setting this up. I suspect that the other 160 or so participants would agree with me.

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