SWEET CHARITY? by Janet E. Poppendieck


Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement
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A magnificent work of engaged scholarship analyzing hunger in modern America and the private and public responses to it. Poppendieck (Sociology/Hunter Coll.; Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat, not reviewed) deals here with the seeming paradox that “poverty grows deeper as our charitable responses to it multiply.” Amid the myriad problems of the poor, we have chosen as a society to focus on hunger. Private, volunteer responses have been vigorous and grown exponentially; today there are tens of thousands of food programs in the US, sponsored by organizations as diverse as the Boy Scouts, postal workers, religious institutions, and credit card companies. Clearly, we care, and Poppendieck does nothing to question the sincerity of such efforts, only their efficacy. She finds we have retreated to charity rather than confront the fundamental causes of hunger and poverty. Growing job insecurity in a time of globalizing and downsizing, reductions in the purchasing power of minimum wage and public assistance, and—most especially, for the author—the unrelenting attack on programs and entitlements for the poor, have created an inequality in the US greater than at any time since WWII. Volunteer food programs thus attack only a symptom of poverty and at the same time contribute to this poverty. They do so by allowing us to focus our energy on immediate need; they sap the energy of activists who might otherwise devote more of their time to advocacy efforts on behalf of the poor. Finally, such food programs let government off the hook, allowing it to ignore its responsibility to foster a more just and equitable society. The author examines all of these themes in detail through documentary research but also through “participant observation.” She works in soup kitchens and food banks. She interviews food recipients in their homes and neighborhoods. She brings to life the interactions of giver and receiver, creating a stunning tableau of kindness and desperation. The most important book on hunger and poverty in America since Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1964).

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-88020-5
Page count: 340pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998