By Emery Webster, Food Rescue Coordinator
This is the first of my “in the driver’s seat” blog posts, and I’m writing to you not from the driver’s seat (a note to my manager: don’t worry, we don’t actually blog and drive!) but from my apartment during a precautionary two-week quarantine during Boston’s COVID19 outbreak. While frustrated to be off the road during such a critical time in the world of emergency food response, I’m grateful the rest of my team is still out there working their hardest to make sure the communities we serve are still receiving the food they depend on during these challenging times.
Being that I’m stuck in my tiny apartment for the next two weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time on social media. It’s surreal to see my Instagram feed go from pictures of houseplants, friends hanging out, and cats to seemingly everyone I follow posting about COVID19. There are, of course, all the posts about proper handwashing techniques and the importance of social distancing–but most striking to me is how many people are suddenly talking about food access for the first time. Being on the road bringing food to vulnerable populations all across the greater Boston area five days a week and having personal experience with relying on food bank provisions, food access is something I’m thinking about constantly. But aside from the handful of social media accounts I follow from the emergency food system and food justice worlds, I almost never see those in my social circles engaging in these kinds of conversations.
The fallout from this epidemic, even just a few weeks into folks starting to wake up to the severity of this, has begun to highlight the many inequalities and vulnerabilities in American society. The possibility of people needing to take several weeks of unpaid sick time or that many businesses will need to close has drawn attention to approximately 23 million American workers living paycheck to paycheck. The closing of schools has drawn attention to the approximately 30 million children who receive reduced cost or free school meals daily. The recommendations of social distancing and self quarantining draw attention to the estimated 553,742 people in the United States experiencing homelessness on any given night. The extreme nature in which some are stockpiling food has drawn attention to how some people in this country are able to have so much while others are barely making by.
As a result, so many people I know are making posts about donating money to your local food banks and the importance of community support at this time. I am of course glad that attention is being brought to food banks and other emergency food programs right now (and strongly urge you to donate even a few dollars to us at Lovin’ Spoonfuls or another food assistance program in your community), but I also hope that this crisis moves people to question why we live in a society where an outbreak like this is so disproportionately harmful to certain populations. I hope that people also realize that these issues of hunger relief they’re rallying behind right now were serious issues before this outbreak and will continue to be issues after unless we begin to address the social structures in place that make such realities possible.
The emergence of the first food banks in the early 1960s and the initial authorization of the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (or what is now called the Emergency Food Assistance Program or TEFAP) in 1981 were intended to be temporary forms of disaster relief. A decades-long charitable response to the underlying causes of hunger does not constitute an emergency. This is not to say that emergency food access organizations, like Lovin’ Spoonfuls, are not vital to the communities they serve. They remain necessary in the system of inequality we remain in as a nation and are especially critical during times like this outbreak. These organizations help maintain food security, but if you start to consider the root causes of hunger and movement towards long term solutions, we need to begin to examine our responses to systemic poverty. At Lovin’ Spoonfuls, we embody this holistic approach to anti-hunger work by partnering with a diverse network of non-profits who address various facets of poverty and hunger. By providing free healthy food to organizations like Pine Street Inn, Haley House, and CASPAR, these organizations don’t need to redirect their own energy or budgets towards feeding their communities and can instead focus on their own organizational aims (ending homelessness, radical community building, and substance abuse treatment respectively).
So I urge you to continue thinking and talking about hunger relief as we come together in response to COVID19, and I hope that these conversations persist beyond the next few months and foster a more systemic understanding and approach to food access work in our communities. In the meantime, please also consider donating to Lovin’ Spoonfuls to support my team of fellow Food Rescue Coordinators out on the road–any donations from individuals up to $100,000 are being matched dollar for dollar right now by two anonymous foundations.