The USDA defines food insecurity as the “lack of access to enough food to live an active, healthy life.” In the U.S., just over 10 percent of families experienced food insecurity in 2019, but that number has skyrocketed to 25 percent in 2020. By one estimate, as of October 2020, nearly 23 million adults and 11 million children did not have enough to eat.
As sociologists whose research explores the concept of food justice—the ways that inequalities including race, class, and gender affect the production, distribution, and consumption of food—we know that these dire circumstances are most directly experienced by poor people, people of color, and female-headed households. The causes of food insecurity are complex but generally rooted in the combination of un- and underemployment and the lack of an adequate social safety net. Black, Latinx, Southeast Asian and Native American households, women, trans people, rural communities and families with children are disproportionately likely to experience poverty, unemployment, and work that does not provide an adequate wage. These disparities have only increased during the pandemic. But the dominant response to this massive food insecurity has generally been to bring food to people, rather than to address its structural causes.
The pandemic has essentialized the already undervalued and underpaid work of food chain laborers. These 20 million workers—14 percent of the nation’s workforce—are paid the lowest hourly median wage of any frontline workers in the United States, and 82 percent of food chain jobs are frontline positions. Even absent the pandemic, many of these jobs are also extremely dangerous. Farm work ranks as more hazardous than firefighting or law enforcement. People of color and women comprise the majority of these low-wage workers. Even before the pandemic, food workers were more likely than those in all other industries to experience food insecurity and rely on food assistance. Approximately 70 percent of those receiving federal food assistance work full time, with McDonalds and Walmart (which supplies the most groceries in the U.S.) among the top five employers.
The Safety Net
Sociologists know well that the social safety net in the U.S. is thin and tattered, especially when compared with other industrialized countries. Even with the passage of the CARES Act, unemployment insurance in the U.S. is far less generous than in Europe, and health insurance is not guaranteed. U.S. poverty rose by about 2 percent during the summer of 2020, with about 7 million additional Americans falling below the line as federal benefits began to run out, leaving less to spend on food.
The CARES Act did include approximately $16 billion in funding for supplemental nutrition programs, allowing for some increasing benefits. In addition, this policy allowed states to temporarily suspend the usual 3-month limit on benefits and to simplify the application and eligibility-verification processes. However, the more than 7 million households that received the maximum allotment prior to the pandemic are ineligible for increased benefits, leaving a gaping hole through which the poorest households can easily tumble.
As a result of this insufficient assistance, charitable food banks and food pantries have seen skyrocketing demand. While we could not locate systematic national data, food pantries across the country report long lines, as well as a decline in key resources such as donations from restaurants and the volunteer labor of retirees who must now stay home to protect their own health. As the public initially stocked up, food donations fell. And according to sociologist Jan Poppendieck, supermarkets dealing with these initial shortages and ongoing safety standards have less time to cull their shelves for the foods that serve as food banks’ primary source of donations.
In spring 2020, Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, projected a $1.4 billion dollar shortfall. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ much-celebrated $100 million donation is not only far less than this need, but glosses over the role of global inequalities and labor practices in creating food insecurity. Amazon’s online grocery sales tripled during summer 2020.
In her address at the ASA Annual Meeting in 2004, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy argued poignantly that “NGOs are the indicator species of a declining state.” In the face of a tattered safety net, nonprofits have mobilized to fill the fraying holes. Perhaps the most prominent of these is chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK). Founded to address the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, WCK works with chefs around the world to provide meals in the wake of natural and manmade disasters, and to address ongoing issues of hunger.
Within the U.S., WCK has served food to victims of hurricanes in Houston, Charleston, and Puerto Rico, and fires in California. The organization has also called attention to the human impacts of political turmoil by feeding workers in Washington, DC, furloughed by the government shutdown of 2019 and citizens waiting to vote in the 2020 elections. During the pandemic, World Central Kitchen first fed the passengers quarantined on the Grand Princess Cruise ship, and later turned many of Andrés and his colleagues’ restaurants into soup kitchens and sources of food to be delivered to frontline workers.
Andrés has also advocated for a New Deal-style program where the government would pay restaurants to provide food to those in need, creating both sustenance and employment for restaurant workers. For his efforts, Andrés has been rewarded with the National Humanities Medal, the coveted James Beard Award, and favorable coverage in the food and general media.
Despite the far reaching efforts of national organizations such as World Central Kitchen and Feeding America, it is essential that we problematize these (male) savior heroes of the nonprofit industrial complex and their dominance in the field of food security solutions. One common insight offered by food justice research has been the realization that large, foundation-funded nonprofits often fail to connect to, and garner support from, the frontline communities they aim to serve.
Our own research has provided evidence of this in Oakland and New Orleans. There is often a racialized dimension to these circumstances. Geographers Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen have found that, among food justice organizations in New York City, white-led organizations are better funded and more politically connected than those led by people of color, while BIPOC activists have called for big structural changes in mainstream foundations’ roles in promoting certain types of white-centered nonprofit work.
While it has not been systemically studied (and would make an excellent dissertation topic for an interested student) some activists have called into question the role that World Central Kitchen plays in the city, for its ties to ICE, internal labor practices, and Andrés’ successful high-end dining restaurants’ contributions to the city’s gentrification. In other words, even though the nonprofit charity organization may be providing some jobs and feeding people, it is funded partly through the capitalistic mechanisms that cause the displacement of long-term residents and rely on vulnerable essential workers. More broadly, by creating their own programs, rather than supporting existing grassroots organizations, organizations like World Central Kitchen fail to share resources with those who have direct experience with hunger, and who know the landscape best. At best, these efforts fall short of empowering the communities so that they no longer need the external help; at worst, nationally funded organizations can compete with and stifle local, grassroots efforts to address food insecurity.
Around the world, small, nimble groups have come together to care for one another, mainstreaming and extending the idea of solidarity-based “mutual aid” that has long permeated social justice activism. Food is among the most common necessities around which communities are organizing. Some groups offer free grocery delivery to those in need. Others donate food, supplies, and funds directly. Some are new networks that have come together to address the pandemic, while others have grown out of the long-standing work of neighborhood associations and community-based organizations.
Rooted in the writings of anarchist Peter Kropotkin, mutual aid differs from charity in its inherently political belief that everyone has contributions to offer and needs to be fulfilled, and that the giving and receiving of aid must be a step toward ongoing social transformation. It has been conceptualized as a decolonizing approach, a praxis of care in which those who receive aid are vital and equal members of their communities. In contrast to foundation-funded nonprofits, mutual aid groups tend to operate as voluntary organizations with scant resources and little-to-no paid staff. Many are aware of the racialized disparities in COVID-19 infections, illnesses, and care, as well as broader social, economic, and health disparities, and explicitly orient their work towards BIPOC communities, trans people, individuals in hard-hit industries, and unhoused people. Some are linked to ongoing food justice and community farming efforts, as well as activism aiming to address the unequal distribution of land and other resources necessary for food production.
These groups make valiant efforts to feed and care for those experiencing food insecurity but are unable to operate at the scale necessary to address the crisis. In addition, the micropolitics of racial and other privileges, and the meritocracy narrative that characterizes poor people as unworthy and untrustworthy, can seep into these well-intentioned efforts. Like the nonprofit example above, when people try to give without a deep understanding of communities’ needs, they can become patronizing and create additional and unnecessary barriers for those receiving aid. The distinction between mutual aid and charity can be lost. Moreover, without external support, local groups can face dwindling funds and volunteer burnout as the pandemic drags on.
Sociologists studying inequalities have much to gain from taking food seriously. It is among our most basic human needs, and the ways that a society organizes to feed its members has much to say about how social life is organized and valued. Food is at once a material necessity and a set of cultural practices, and offers the opportunity to better understand the relationship between the work we do to survive, the work we do to care for one another, and the work we do to develop and express our individual and collective sense of who we are within complex circumstances.
Food overlaps with many more established areas of sociology, including race, class and gender, social movements, labor, and urban and rural (under)development. This is a particularly dire time to focus on hunger and health disparities, but the sociological insights to be gained will last far beyond this historical moment.
Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.