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The contested politics of food banking in the U.S.

A recently published article in the journal Food, Culture & Society, written by Joshua Lohnes from West Virginia University, analyzes the contradictions inherent in post-COVID food charity networks. Joshua Lohnes is also a Coordination Team Member of the National Right to Food Community of Practice.

In his article, Joshua argues that food banks are both subordinate to the power and politics that maintain the industrial food system model AND deeply central to corporations' ability to maintain the status quo of a food system that relies on charitable institutions to absorb their food waste. Herein lies one of the many contradictions of our unjust food system and the opportunity for food charity networks to confront the power that both binds and needs them. Food charity networks can upset the apple cart of a food system that relies on a permanent state of food insecurity for corporate profitability. They are at a crossroads. Which path will they choose?

You can read an excerpt from the article below and access the full article here.

Excerpt from: The contested politics of food banking in the United States; Food, Culture, and Society; Routledge, 12 November 2023.

By Joshua Lohnes

Food banking networks were presumably designed to address food insecurity for low-income households. Their institutionalization however has been fostered by food sector interests with powerful policy allies in Washington D.C. Those seeking to understand broader food system politics in the U.S. must remain attentive to the bundles of power and politics of compassion that structure these spaces of vulnerability, and the economies of care that have come to intervene in the process. Food banks fix supply-side problems within a capitalist food economy through a set of institutional relationships that bring the state, the shadow state (Wolch 1990), food corporations, local charities, and philanthropic donors together through humanitarian reason (Fassin 2011).

As independent organizations, food banks can choose to engage as key contributors to the food justice and food sovereignty movements in the United States (Holt Giminez and Shattuck, 2011). Countless labor hours, resources and systems have been committed to food waste redistribution as hunger relief over the past four decades, yet millions in the United States continue to remain dependent on short term emergency food relief due to deep-seated social inequality that remains as entrenched as ever. This is not lost on people engaged in maintaining these networks in place. A West Virginia food bank director put it bluntly: “We’re just feeding the line, not shortening the line. Even though we want to, the reality is we’re a short-term fix to a long-term problem.”16 Over the past decade however many food charities have taken stock of their roles in reinforcing food system power dynamics that contribute to hunger and the entrenchment of food banking networks. Some are beginning to align their work with grassroots movements advancing community food security advocating for local, state and national policies that advance food justice (Bellows and Hamm, 2002). Closing the Hunger Gap (CTHG) for example is a national movement whose stated mission is to “expand hunger relief efforts beyond food distribution towards strategies that promote social justice and address the root causes of hunger.”


The rise and evolution of the food banking phenomenon offers a mirror into the broader political contest over the food system in the United States. As feeding lines have expanded over the past forty years, the social power of charitable food organizations has also increased. Situating the food banking phenomenon in its historical context, I analyzed the shifting politics of food provisioning within this diverse network of actors and the various

social movements (both progressive and conservative) that have contributed to it. Charitable food networks are complex, made up of many different types of nonprofit organizations each independent of one another, but connected through the food surplus and food insecure households that bind them together. Each organization is made up of people with differing ideologies and various political and ethical claims to action, coordinated under a private-public governance assemblage that has its own set of interests.

As central nodes of this network however, food banks have the capacity to exercise power and demand institutional changes to both private sector business practices and public sector rules, regulations, and funding streams. The billions of dollars spent on charitable food infrastructure to maintain the legitimacy of the capitalist food system positions these organizations as key players in global food supply chains. Their power stems from the essential function that food banks now play in both the accumulation strategy and moral economy of the corporate food regime. Food banks are thus at a crossroads. Their organizations can choose to either reinforce the status quo of an exploitative, environmentally destructive, and racist food system, or begin to shift the expanding social power of their institutions to contribute to food justice and food sovereignty coalitions that envision a more resilient, equitable and ecologically vibrant food future.

Ongoing food system crises are certain to maintain food banks at the center of these conversations for years to come. Well funded organizations like the Global Food Banking Network for example are working to expand the corporate-backed food banking model around the world. Those working to advance food justice and food sovereignty at different scales of engagement might do well to engage with the discursive and material transformations currently underway across charitable food networks and contribute toward efforts to shift dominant ideas and power dynamics therein.


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