Anna Sofia Salonen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tampere, Finland, and during fall 2018 a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the University of Toronto's Department of Sociology. Her research has examined religiously affiliated charitable food assistance from the recipients’ perspective, as well as the everyday ethics of food consumption and the virtue of moderation in affluent societies.
The general growth of wealth has not salvaged the world from hunger. Severe hunger crises have emerged in different parts of the world during the affluent twentieth century. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, hunger is not a stranger even to the richest countries of the world, where many people still lack access to affordable, nutritious, sufficient, and appropriate food.
In many parts of the affluent world, religious organizations have been active in responding to hunger and food insecurity by providing charitable food assistance to people afflicted by poverty. Food banks have often started as local grassroots level initiatives, but during the last decades many of them have become a part of institutionalized assistance networks, which operate in partnership with the food industry and retail. Professor Graham Riches has noted that there is a global rise of corporate food banking as the primary response to rich world food poverty. In this model of food assistance, religious organizations are middlemen in the process where surplus food is transformed into a utility of charitable assistance, and individuals and households suffering from poverty, in turn, are assigned a role in managing food excess.
Despite the good intentions, charitable food assistance does not end hunger and food insecurity in the affluent world. Studies have shown that not all hungry people have either access or willingness to obtain food that is provided as charity, and that many people remain food insecure despite resorting to charitable food aid. We are frequently told that the demand for food assistance is growing. This indicates that the ever-growing network of charity food providers is not able to end hunger. Instead, the persistent need for food assistance suggests that the current means of relieving hunger and food insecurity are not working.
In the face of the evidence indicating the limited ability of food assistance to solve the vicious problems of hunger and food insecurity, why do so many religious communities still continue to take part in such activity? In the early spring of 2014, I asked this question of a director in one local church-run food bank in Toronto. My interviewee answered aptly: “Theologically, we can’t not.”
Various religious traditions are steeped in examples of giving food to the hungry, and these religious motivations are important drivers of food assistance work on a grassroots level. Even though food assistance providers would acknowledge that their work is not a sufficient long-term solution to food insecurity, and might even stand in a way of more lasting solutions, they cannot withdraw from alleviating the immediate suffering of those who are in need. Giving food to hungry people is something that everybody agrees to be important. Hunger is an everyday sensation that we can all relate to. But perhaps this abundance of traditions that display giving food as the proper way for responding to poverty stands in the way of more lasting solutions?
Ultimately, hunger is a matter of excess and abundance. Overcoming hunger requires changes in the structures of societies, in the food system, and in the culture and lifestyles in affluent societies. Simple technical solutions, such as turning food surplus into a means of charitable assistance, are not sustainable answers to hunger, because waste-based food assistance systems legitimize rather than overcome the problems of food insecurity and food waste.
Charitable food assistance is a sign of, not a solution to, hunger. Instead, prompt and persistent policy efforts are needed to secure the right to food and adequate living for all. Religious actors are where the hunger happens. The experience and knowledge that they gain from the hands-on work with people suffering from hunger can be used as assets to raise the public debate on hunger across the world and to bridge the distance between people who live in abundance and those who live in scarcity, both globally and within societies.