From Sweet Charity to Food Justice – The WhyHunger Interview with Jan Poppendieck

Peter Mann interviews WhyHunger Board member Jan Poppendieck, author of “Sweet Charity?” and “Free for All,” for her insights on the state of the emergency feeding system, community food security and the future of school lunch.

By Peter Mann, WhyHunger
September 3, 2008

As part of its goal to link anti-hunger work and community food security, Peter Mann, the Director Emeritus of WhyHunger’s Global Movements Program, interviewed author and professor Jan Poppendieck. Jan Poppendieck is the author of the 1998 groundbreaking book, Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, which chronicled the shift from federal anti-poverty programs to local soup kitchens and food pantries feeding the hungry. She is recently the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America and is Professor of Sociology at Hunter College in New York City.

Part I: After Sweet Charity
WhyHunger: It is seven years since your book Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement appeared. How did the anti-hunger community respond to the book, and what kinds of dialogues have you had?

JP: I think the anti-hunger community responded with remarkable grace. I certainly tried to be gentle in Sweet Charity?, but it did raise questions about the work of the emergency food/ charitable food sectors of the anti-hunger movement at a very fundamental level. A very few people were defensive, but most seemed to rise to the challenge of at least thinking about the broader implications of what they were doing. I have been gratified to have people tell me that their food bank or their coalition of food providers had become more active on public policy issues since reading the book. I certainly received a lot of speaking invitations, which I took as evidence that people were willing to think about these issues.

I was very lucky to have the book introduced to the food banking community of America’s Second Harvest (A2H, currently Feeding America) by Bernie Beaudreau, the Director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and one of the most thoughtful and progressive food bankers I have met. He read the book and understood immediately that it was raising issues with which food bankers needed to grapple, so he invited me to speak to the “Hunger Summit” meeting of the Eastern Region of the A2H network. And he introduced me to that gathering in a way that generated an open-minded attitude. I’ll always be grateful.

WhyHunger: It seems the time was ripe for the questions you were asking.

JP: Timing was an important factor. It took me a long time to write Sweet Charity? – by the time it came out many people had been thinking these things but not articulating them- “ a sort of “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon. Everywhere I went to speak, I had people tell me that they had formulated a similar critique but had been reluctant to voice it. It is one of the great privileges of being an academic that I can say critical things without disrupting my day to day operating relationships. I’ll never forget a woman in St. Paul, Minnesota, who came up to me after I spoke and put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye and said “Janet, there are more of us than we think!”

WhyHunger: What changes have you seen in the world of soup kitchens and food pantries initiatives to build cooperative ventures and promote self reliance since Sweet Charity?

JP: In addition to a clearer, more active voice on public policy, there are four types of change that I hoped for:

  • more effort to connect clients with their entitlements
  • more involvement of clients in the governance and decision-making of the provider organizations
  • human capital investment to upgrade client skills and employability
  • engagement in broader food systems change

I have seen a great deal of effort to connect clients with entitlements, in part because providers have realized how well positioned they are to do this, and software and other forms of assistance have made this more doable- in part because the federal government, through the Department of Agriculture, has offered grant funding for such efforts.

I have heard about more client involvement in running pantries, not as a reaction to the book but pantries that were already involving clients who identified themselves to me when I spoke about the book. I think this still needs more effort. There have certainly been some very interesting economic development and food system projects. In fact, WhyHunger and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) have recently profiled them in “Building the Bridge.” I think these are inspiring examples, but I also think they are difficult and time consuming and that many small-scale, local pantries and kitchens are overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the flood of need that washes over their doorsteps. Unfortunately, the most consistent change I’ve seen is the continuing escalation of need.

WhyHunger: You have spoken of a potential social movement in the armies of volunteers within the emergency feeding programs. What would be needed for this movement to build?

JP: The most essential ingredients are already there: the good will, expertise and credibility of kitchen and pantry volunteers. The good will is manifest in their continuing to show up, week after week and year after year. The expertise comes from their observations and their interaction with clients, but they don’t always recognize that they have this expertise. We need to find ways to bring them together to reflect on what they have learned and to claim their own knowledge. It won’t just happen. They are busy people, and there is always another box to pack or inventory to take or form to fill out. It has to be built in. Bill Bolling said it when I interviewed him for Sweet Charity? at least a decade ago:  

“…we brought the people in to volunteer–tens of millions of them in this country–but we haven’t that next step. I mean, if a person volunteers in a food box program or a soup kitchen, it ought to be a requirement they volunteer three hours and spend an hour reflecting.”

I’m not willing to specify a 3:1 ratio, but I think the basic idea is correct that it is up to the organization that is recruiting the volunteers. And once they have had a chance to recognize their own expertise and reflect on its implications, they need to use that third ingredient, their credibility to help create public policy based on what they have learned. This is an area where real leadership is needed. Perhaps as the founding directors of Food Banks and Community Food Security Programs begin to retire, they could create a sort of Council of Elders to take on this task.

WhyHunger: You believe strongly that social policy in the U.S. can assure a real safety net and a more just society. Given the difficult political climate we are in today, what needs to be done?

JP: Like any other arena, there are the immediate needs and longer-range challenges. Immediately, we need to address the preservation of Food Stamp funding. As this goes to publication, the Congressional Agriculture Committees will begin looking for places to cut $3 billion over five years from programs under their jurisdiction. The Congressional budget process has pitted Food Stamps and other food assistance programs against farm subsidies and against conservation measures, and we need every food pantry and soup kitchen volunteer, and every food bank board member and every farmers market coordinator and alternative food system activist in the nation to speak up, not only to protect Food Stamps and conservation measures but also to use this opportunity to reduce some of the more destructive agribusiness subsidies. Some excellent resources are FRAC, the Food Research and Action Center, and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

WhyHunger: What is the longer-term task?

JP: In the longer run, I think we need to move beyond the charitable model of comfortable people helping out poor people, not only by moving our kitchens and pantries toward cooperatively-run projects, but also in our politics and policy, by addressing the needs that we all share: campaign finance reform; access to clean air and water; health insurance; a decent minimum wage; affordable housing; child care; and the quality of our schools. We have had a tendency to draw a line in our society between the poor and everybody else: us and them. But given what has been happening to the distribution of wealth and income, I think it is time to draw the line at the other end of the spectrum, between the regular people and the very rich who have demonstrated that they have different interests from the rest of us. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been focusing my attention on school meals–they address a basic need that cuts across social class.

WhyHunger: The Community Food Security movement had just emerged when you wrote Sweet Charity? It is now becoming a powerful coalition around healthy food and healthy communities. How can it link effectively with the wider anti-hunger movement?

JP: I think the linking is already taking place at the local and grassroots level–through food policy councils where they exist and through informal networks of activists. I know more anti-hunger activists who ARE interested in broader food system issues of quality, sustainability, and environmental justice than I do anti-hunger activists who are narrowly focused on food assistance programs. After all, both of these movements are calling our society to put human needs before raw profit-taking, to shape economic activities and public policies to create the sort of society where there is a place at the table for all and the food on the table is healthy and life-enhancing.

It is more difficult, at times, at the level of state and national organizations; these may feel that they are in competition for a limited pot of funding and for a finite pool of donors and activists, and that they need to keep their identities clear in order to maintain their visibility. That is why an opportunity like Food Stamps vs. Agribusiness subsidies vs. Conservation Security is an important meeting ground. I think that school meals can be another such meeting ground–an issue that has long been central to the agenda of anti-hunger activists but which also has enormous potential to create markets for healthy, sustainably grown farm products.

Part 2: School Food
WhyHunger: Jan, you are currently writing a book about school food. What led you into this topic and how does it connect to Sweet Charity?

JP: In one way it grows directly out of that book. When I was doing the research for Sweet Charity?, I cannot tell you how many food pantry directors and food bankers told me that demand went up in the summer because the children were out of school and thus not getting their school lunches. But the program as it is currently structured is full of problems. We have a three-tier eligibility structure–free, reduced price, and “full price” meals–that generates an enormous burden and headache for school administrators and creates a stigma for participants. Many poor children, especially at the high-school level, are reluctant to eat the school meals for fear of being labeled as poor. And the stigma spills over to the food itself, so the middle class children won’t buy it either, even when it is a bargain because of the federal and other subsidies.

Meanwhile, I think the obesity figures are showing us clearly that it is not just poor kids who need to have healthy, nutritious meals at school. Our children are exposed to hours and hours of advertising for unhealthy foods each week. School meals are one of the few tools we have to teach them about healthy foods, to introduce them to the joys of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains and the other foods in which so many of our diets are deficient. School food could do this, but not if it continues in its current, stigmatized, complex, paperwork burdened approach.


WhyHunger: What is the alternative?

JP: The alternative is a universal program that does not stigmatize. In some ways, my interest in school meals pre-dated the concerns that led me to Sweet Charity? In 1974, I took a break from dissertation writing to serve as the interim director of the National School Breakfast Campaign, a project of FRAC. The experience left me with an abiding admiration for anti-hunger advocates and a lasting preference for universal programs that do not stigmatize. In the current concern about obesity, I see an opportunity to move school meals to a universally free basis. I’ve recently visited Sweden to look at their system, which provides a meal, free of charge, as a regular part of the school day to all students in the compulsory grades. I’m convinced, and I hope my book will re-open this debate.

WhyHunger: Government officials seem reluctant to treat school meals as a public health measure. What strategies do you recommend to pressure governments?

JP: Interestingly, I think those same government officials have actually handed us a wonderful strategy. The 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act contained a provision requiring school districts to set up committees to formulate a district “Wellness Policy.” Such policies are supposed to address not only the quality of school food but also the other foods available on school campuses–in vending machines and school stores and the like and even foods served at parties in the classroom and at after school events, and I think they are also supposed to address access to health care on campus. The law says that the committees formulating such policies–one for each district, not one for each school–must contain parents, teachers, students, school administrators, school board members, representatives of the school food service, and “the public.” I think WhyHunger supporters and anti-hunger/community food security advocates should be getting onto those committees and publicizing their deliberations and making sure that this is a real participatory process of self education, and not simply another box to be checked off on federal applications (like the box where you state that you have a drug free workplace policy.)

WhyHunger: How can we change government policy on financing school food?

JP: The other strategy is financial. Financial pressures are a big part of the reason that many school meals are not models of healthy choices–they must meet minimum nutrition standards, but many of them do so with pre-formulated, manufactured products that may be technically nutritious but do not help to teach children to recognize healthy foods. School food service operations are under tremendous pressure to break even, and the federal reimbursement is not high enough to permit most schools to serve really healthy food. Our leaders believe that all Americans simply want lower and lower taxes. We need to find a way to let them know that the current approach to school food is “penny wise but pound foolish.” We are not saving money; we are deferring costs.

WhyHunger: Some public officials strongly support healthy food in schools but others are afraid of losing corporate funding or find they are accused of denying freedom of choice. How do you respond to this?

JP: When you mention the fear of losing corporate funding, you may be referring to school principals who have become dependent upon vending machine revenues and “pouring rights” contracts [i.e., contracts between a school or school system and a soft drink company giving one particular brand exclusive access to the schools vending machines, sales at athletic events, etc.] for discretionary funds. Frankly, I think this is a shocking practice. We need to fund our schools adequately so that principals and superintendents are not turned into drug dealers to fund important extracurricular activities or other aspects of school operation.

I read the testimony of a school principal in Hawaii telling the Board of Education just what he did with that discretionary cash, and it was not for frills–he used some of it to air condition the computer lab because otherwise the computers couldnt be used part of the year. He used some of it to hire a security service for holidays when the school was not in session and its computers and other expensive hardware had been stolen in the past. Principals should have discretionary funds from regular sources. If we dont trust them enough to give them some flexible funding, we certainly should not have them running the schools where our children are educated!

WhyHunger: We have also read about corporate pressure on legislators.

JP: Members of state legislatures have been talked out of soda and junk food bans by heavy corporate lobbying–and governors like Connecticut’s have declined to sign such a measure even after the legislature got up its nerve to pass it. Again, I think that lobbying of that sort is shocking! Where is our capacity for outrage? Why don’t we cry foul? Legislators who know this stuff is bad for the children–bad for their health and bad for their education–and allow themselves to vote against what they know is right for fear of losing corporate campaign donations should be ashamed of themselves! Maybe we need to create our own funding streams–a Child Health PAC–to offer alternative sources of campaign support, but in reality I think we need thorough campaign finance reform that would make donations by corporations illegal. Of course corporations are going to use their donations to pursue narrow corporate interest, and I think that is totally out of place in a democracy. Period.

WhyHunger: Advocates for nutritious food in schools find they are accused of denying freedom of choice or undermining parental control. How do you respond to this?

JP: On the consumer freedom issue, I don’t think a school is a marketplace. Kids can buy unhealthy foods on the way to and from school and in the supermarket. But by offering them for sale at school, the school surrenders its capacity to teach what is healthy. We dont offer pornography in the school library, and generally speaking, we dont offer pulp fiction, either. We dont say that the library should expose kids to the full range of literary output so that they will learn to choose wisely; we say that being included in a school library is a sort of seal of approval. I think we need to use the same approach to standards for food. It seems to me that this is not undermining parental control but making it possible. How is it supporting parental control if you line the hallways with vending machines that sell the very items I have told my children I don’t want them to purchase?

WhyHunger: When will the book be available?

JP: The book is titled Free for All: Fixing School Food in America and is on bookshelves now.