Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement

by Janet Poppendieck

by Janet Poppendieck

New York: Penguin Putnam Books. 1999. Hardcover. 354 pp. ISBN 0670880205.

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Many anti-hunger food programs in the United States have been driven by supply considerations, principally the need to dispose of U.S. food surpluses, but they have also been community based, pragmatic, innovative, and often heroic in their attempt to provide a safety net for America’s poor. But does the growth of these efforts discourage Congress from addressing root causes?

Janet Poppendieck, a professor at New York’s Hunter College, argues yes: U.S. community-based feeding programs reduce pressure for more fundamental change.

Based on recent field visits she made to dozens of programs around the United States, she concludes that the growth of kindness abets a decline in justice. But the author’s premise goes untested as she finds no data to test her proposition that the availability of help from food pantries “may” deter people from exercising their rights to government entitlements, with the consequence that they “may end up worse off, materially at least.”

Her conclusions are strongly conditioned by her assumptions, which she states early on. She feels that the government is responsible for income inequality. She prefers Federal entitlements to community-based action. She writes glowingly about how food stamps in the 1960s brought “us together, to make us one society,” while she was “taken aback when soup kitchens and food pantries began to proliferate in the early 1980s.” Of particular value are the historical lessons about the ebbs and flows of U.S. surplus commodity distribution programs to the poor, dating to the 1930s.

She catalogues the reasons given by anti-hunger workers for why they volunteer, including relief of guilt, reduction in waste, and religious zeal. She recognizes as well the ritualistic significance and emotional power of providing meals. She reports imperfections in the pantries, soup kitchens, and food drives she visits, citing instances of logistical inefficiency, poor nutritional quality, indignities encountered, and limited access by the poor. In the process of proving her pre-determined case, the author does a disservice to much charitable enterprise when she demeans the work of thousands of U.S. charitable organizations as “creating the illusion of effective action.”

In the end, Sweet Charity provides a strong argument for programs that help the poor gain access to public sector benefits for which they are entitled, through counseling or advocacy, or to find jobs.

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