There’s a widespread belief that charities and people living in poverty should just ‘be grateful’ for any food donations they receive. That’s a dangerous and damaging idea, argues Rebekah Graham.
This is part of an ongoing series of articles based on Dr Rebekah Graham’s PhD research on poverty and food insecurity. Read part one – No, poor New Zealand families can’t just ‘grow their own vegetables’, part two – No, poor NZ families don’t just need to make ‘better choices’, and part three – No, poor New Zealand families don’t need your crappy advice.
The nexus of poverty, food choice and charity is a topic that’s getting a lot of attention this week, with Jackie Clark of The Aunties* starting a debate that has been taken up by Caroline Herewini of Porirua Māori Women’s Refuge and researcher Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, among others. All three argued that for women living in refuges in particular, some donations are far better than others. But the comment sections on those articles revealed a strongly-held belief that families living with hardship should just “be grateful” for whatever food is thrown their way. New Zealanders of means often seem to think that poorer families don’t deserve food that is enjoyable to eat, familiar, or socially appropriate. Over the past few days the “beggars can’t be choosers” refrain has been repeated, implying that if you are too poor to buy your own food you shouldn’t have a say in what you eat.
This demeaning attitude to people living with poverty is not new. Remember Anne? After I wrote about her someone donated a box of items for her pantry, and she was terribly grateful. “I thought wow this is awesome and then I was looking at it and I was like, that packet looks a bit damaged, and it expired like a year ago! I’ve been given off food.” Anne didn’t want to appear ungrateful, but not only was she given dated foods, some of the donated items made her retch; she literally could not force them down. Likewise, Ginny from the same article mentioned being given apples with “bugs all through them and most of them were brown”. Even so, Ginny painstakingly went through every apple, cutting out the useful parts to eat.
In a society characterised by an abundance of readily available food, being expected to eat rotten, dated, and barely edible items is a humiliating reminder of one’s lowly status. Societal attitudes to impoverished groups is that they ought to be grateful for the scraps and leftovers that more well-off people decline to eat. Ginny’s children described eating other children’s leftover lunches at school, finding edible apples in rubbish bins, and having to eat inedible food because it was all that was available. While all income groups have experiences of eating less-than-ideal foodstuffs, having to eat dated, rotten, or unpleasant food is part of everyday survival for many living with hardship. Accepting and eating substandard food has become an unremarkable aspect of everyday life in such households.
In these circumstances, who can blame charities for wanting to provide a pleasant-tasting treat for the people they help? Instead, charities are expected to be grateful for whatever excess items people with means give them. Although well-meaning, merely donating from one’s excess can contribute to classist attitudes that impoverished families ought to be grateful for whatever scraps they receive. Providing inedible, unwanted food items to people in need reinforces notions of failure and worthlessness and conveys the underlying message that people in poverty are not worthy of good food. Giving out-of-date and unwanted food items to charitable groups reflects a broader devaluation of some societal groups. Families living with hardship are not seen as worthy enough for nice foods which they may enjoy eating and from which they may derive some form of comfort.
Having to request charity for food to eat is a humiliating experience. As Robert Walker writes in The Shame of Poverty, “Charity…demeans the recipient while serving to enhance the status of the giver.” Charitable giving reinforces the existing power dynamic between those who are able to give, and those who must be thankful for the gift. Indeed, charity of this sort can forces a particular performance of gratitude, requiring a certain obsequiousness on behalf of the receiver. This is not healthy for well-functioning societies, and especially not for the sort of egalitarian society that New Zealand likes to pride itself as being. Instead, this form of inequality fosters a strong sense of social inequity: some families know that more affluent people are able to feed themselves well, while they must exist on cast-off foods.
This unspoken expectation of submissiveness and compliance goes some way to explaining the uproar over the rejection of tinned tomatoes and chickpeas. Jackie Clark simply refused to participate in the required pandering to wealthier groups. Instead she baldly announced that they would prefer donations of particular food items that the families they worked with would enjoy and would use. This disruption of the commonly accepted social narrative that poor families should just be grateful for what is given caused an uproar among many New Zealanders, who demanded an immediate return to appropriate levels of gratitude. Apparently focusing on the needs of impoverished families and giving them the freedom to choose what they’d prefer to eat causes quite the disruption to this country’s social fabric. Long may it continue.
*The Aunties Collective is an amazing organisation working with women and children who find themselves in the most rubbish of circumstances and needing support. Please go to their Givealittle page and donate whatever you can during this time of year that can be hard for so many.
Rebekah Graham recently completed her PhD at Massey University. Her research with families documents the lived experiences of food insecurity within the context of poverty. She lives in Hamilton with her husband, four children, and a very large orange cat.