The Fight Against Food Insecurity is a Fight Against Structural Inequality

Christy Mello, professor of anthropology, uses anthropologically informed methods to combat food insecurity and structural inequality through the organization Our Kitchen Table (OKT). Using tactics inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, OKT aims to increase food sovereignty and challenge gentrification in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In her article, Food Sovereignty and Action, Mello describes the practice of gentrification, when upper and middle class individuals or businesses buy low priced housing or land and remodel it in order to increase property value. Often branded as “urban renewal”, this seemingly positive practice has the hidden consequence of displacing poor and disadvantaged populations. Gentrification is increasingly practiced by non-profit organizations (with support from the city) who aim to increase food security in low income areas.

While the goals of these organizations may seem noble, the problem, Mello contends, is that the solutions offered are “Band-Aid” solutions that do not address the deeper structural causes of food insecurity and poverty. OKT combines a socially conscious viewpoint with activism by providing means for low-income groups to have control over the production of their food by growing it themselves. OKT also aims to educate their constituents about farming hazards especially lead in the soil because lead exposure in childhood can decrease IQ and increase the tendency towards violent crime in individuals.

The work that OKT does highlights the fact that structural inequality cannot be solved by surface level solutions. Giving food to the poor does not make them more able to provide for themselves, rather providing outlets for them to be able to attain affordable, nutritional food without non-profit or government assistance will help them to become more secure. Furthermore, the struggle for food is not only about filling stomachs, it is about the ways that hunger can be used to oppress minorities. Hunger and malnutrition severely impedes an individual’s ability to succeed academically and interpersonally. If low-income and racial minorities are prevented from academic success they will rarely have the opportunity to be in a position to change their circumstances. Thus, justice and equality for minorities begins with the fight for the right to health and nutrition.

If all non-profit and community oriented organizations began to think about ways to reduce structural inequality, they would be much more effective. Non-profits should be aware of ways in which their efforts may be increasing gentrification and aim to minimize those impacts.  Band-Aid solutions by charitable organizations do not work forever and are only marginally helpful to those in need. As a society we should empower those who are struggling to have the resources to change their situation and strive for equality.