Crisis and Community Care: Studying Hunger at Home as a First-Generation Student
By: Alisha D. Borck
I grew up in a food insecure household in Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, yet I can understand why hunger is believed to be far away. Our hunger was a stigmatized secret, pushed to the back of the pantry, just like the expired can of yams we hoarded just in case social services came by—or we reached a new threshold of desperation. Equipped with a G.E.D. and the harrowing experience of solely surviving on foods of desperation, I enrolled in a regional college and learned to use anthropology as an armored vehicle and safe space to learn more about hunger. During the sleepless nights in my car, I formed a bond with the people I read about in undergraduate textbooks. I recognized similarities between the faraway problems around the world and the issues I faced in my own home (or in this case, lack thereof). I recognized how the anthropological gaze seemed to fall upon impoverished and hungry people—like me. I noted that hungry people almost had a voice, as their stories were told by the anthropologist presumably “studying down.” Seeing the representation in the literature empowered me to claim my own story and use my own hungry voice. We can speak, too.
The Everyday Life of Crisis
In concert with empowerment, I also discerned the ethic of care necessary for storytellers of injustice, the people narrating what I call “everyday crises.” There are many definitions for what constitutes a crisis, most of them contain an element of difficulty within a particular time. Yet some people experience what it is like to be in a crisis nearly every day. These everyday crises come in the form of eviction and utility disconnection notices; mounting healthcare issues that are shoved to the side; working multiple jobs; fines and jail time when you cannot afford taxes or insurance; low credit scores that ensure you will never have a reliable car; all with an empty stomach. The everyday crises leave us vulnerable and voiceless, hoping that whoever holds power will show a shred of mercy, again and again. I had to learn to embrace my story when I ran out of middle-class excuses to cover up missing homework assignments because I did not have a stable home, or missing class because I could not afford to get there.
"My fieldnotes read more like a diary as the boundaries between field and home became more obscure. What differentiates being in the field from being at home when the everyday crisis of hunger is so deeply embedded in both?"
I firmly believed that going to graduate school would lessen my vulnerability to these crises. If I learned about hunger, I could avoid it. I eventually learned otherwise, especially as I found my way into a PhD program studying food anthropology. My mountain of student loan debt and exhaustive bibliographies made me painfully aware of unjust global food policies and how the US food system is not in a crisis, rather it is a crisis: one lived everyday by those that are hungry. Likewise, I learned that food policy knowledge and student loan debt would not save me, as I worried how I would eat after a day of participant observation at a food pantry. My fieldnotes read more like a diary as the boundaries between field and home became more obscure. What differentiates being in the field from being at home when the everyday crisis of hunger is so deeply embedded in both? Did I consider the hunger currently experienced by my own family as data? As I grappled with these boundaries, I did not find clear answers, but I did find reinforced passion for justice and empowering others to use their own voice. When I need to, yet again, find the courage to share my food story for social justice, I reluctantly rely on the indignation I glean from phone calls with my parents, and my own anxiety about unending hunger. As a scholar, I learned to situate my own story within the academic context and the language of power. I discovered that, while my own voice can accelerate justice, scholarly journals, secured behind a paywall and the privilege of a dot edu email address, will offer job and food security. Synthesizing both, I found a collection of literature that spoke to my experiences within the food system—a literature that later shaped my ongoing dissertation research about emergency food relief through food pantries in my Eastern Kentucky hometown.
Endemic Hunger within a Global Pandemic
My dissertation fieldwork began in early 2021 and I sometimes heard within food pantries how they seemed much busier before the pandemic, long before the stimulus checks and emergency SNAP benefits. Hunger is not new, neither are the other structural inequalities—such as racism, colonization, and the overall neoliberal depoliticization of hunger—embedded within our food system (Gálvez 2018; Zlolniski 2019; Carney 2015; Saxton 2021; Mares 2019; Garth 2020; Minkoff-Zern 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic pulled hunger from the back of the pantry and placed it, euphemized as “food insecurity,” in national news headlines. The food crisis gained a new foothold within the media as the fear of not being able to eat ventured into households that were inexperienced with navigating hunger. The food crisis that resulted in my mother crying when she was unable to feed us suddenly became highly visible. Anthropologists, journalists, and many other professionals wrote about supply chain issues during the Covid-19 pandemic (Fuentes 2022). Even my younger sister’s social media videos, which usually featured cats and dancing, centered around the food supply chain. More than that, scholars, journalists, and social media influencers began to speak about hunger, creating a small window into the everyday life of the hunger crisis. After all, hunger only feels like a crisis when it is sitting at your kitchen table, not within statistics. As my family of front-line workers, now deemed national heroes, continued to clock in, I sat at home and immersed myself in the ubiquitous news about hunger at home. Emergency food pantries across the US struggled to meet an increased need for food, the US government bolstered SNAP funding as a line of defense, and data centered on hunger in the US was captured and placed in plain sight (Fuentes 2020; Barman et al. 2021). While anthropological scholarship does point to even higher rates of hunger within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant supply chain issues (Fuentes 2022; Barman, Das, and De Kanti 2021), the US is no stranger to food crises, and emergency food pantries are no stranger to hungry households.
"While the COVID-19 pandemic did not introduce hunger to Appalachian Kentucky, it did bring into sharp relief the failings of our food system."
Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, compared to other rural spaces throughout the United States, is disproportionately vulnerable to economic and health disruptions given the pronounced economic inequality in the region (Billings and Kingsolver 2018; Catte 2017; Kingsolver 2020). The region is further marked by exploitation, extraction, and bankrupt infrastructures, as well as a politicized and moral impetus to pathologize marginalized and hungry people (Kingsolver 2020; Wies, Mays, Collins, Young 2020; Wilkerson 2018). While the COVID-19 pandemic did not introduce hunger to Appalachian Kentucky, it did bring into sharp relief the failings of our food system. As stated by one participant, “Everyone was so worried about food and [baby] formula during the pandemic, but that’s just our life, that’s the way things are. We never know where [our next meal] will come from.” Though headlines about food insecurity provided a stronger safety net during the pandemic, these were mitigating measures for a temporary crisis, unmasked during our time of masking for virus prevention. My younger sister knew of hunger well before social media influencers voiced their concerns during the pandemic, because our hunger—and the hunger of many others—is endemic.
Hunger and Spiritual Bread
The responsibility of addressing the hunger crisis in everyday life, particularly within rural communities, is largely placed upon the shoulders of faith-based volunteer labor at emergency food pantries (Purser and Hennigan 2017; Poppendieck 1998). This structure embeds alleviating hunger within the context of community care work (Dickinson 2020; Lohnes and Wilson 2018; Poppendieck 2014), religiosity, and sometimes, personal experience with hunger. Amongst the volunteers at the local emergency food pantries I study, I have been hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t use religious scripture as their primary motivation for donating their time and labor to emergency food programs. When I asked one of the food relief leaders how they find the energy to show up at the food pantry to pack bags, listen to people, manage volunteers, and handle the general daily operations, they said, “Prayer. This work can suck you dry if you let it because people lean on you. I pray to god and ask him to help me each day to see these people [food pantry clients] as his. It is important to me that people know him [god].”
Another volunteer, a retired white man, reported spending around 50 hours per week gleaning and distributing foods to local emergency food pantries. When I asked about his experiences with volunteering in local food relief he stated, “People are hungry, and they come to the food bank to get bread. I hand them bread donations and spiritual bread. I hand out Bibles and offer to pray for people—I try to feed their soul. It’s part of our humanness to help and I wanna help people who are not getting [government] benefits.” A senior white woman described her desire to volunteer as something “god wants me to do,” she went on to describe it as a spiritual calling. Sometimes spaces of hunger relief feel more like a sermon as volunteers often describe their idea of religious righteousness for the clients they serve and how they deserve prayer to “live right.” Amidst all of this, cars will continue to line up, sometimes forming a line that can take several hours to make it through, for a serving of compassion with a side of food. Because even when everything else is gone, eviction letters have been served and the cars are repossessed, hunger stays.
Policing Care and Charity: Waiting in a Drive-Thru
Although care work is sometimes considered to act in opposition to large bureaucracies (Saxton 2021; Kohl-Arenas 2016), emergency food relief programs highlight a space where community care for the hungry is institutionalized and even policed. The food pantries I study have all adopted a drive-thru model, equipped with an expected wait time for the customers (less than one minute, much like the efficiency models desired in fast food) and sometimes even a barcode. The length of the line can sometimes wrap around the building—especially towards the end of the month.
I have waited in the same line as both a hungry person and an anthropologist studying “home.” During both experiences, I reflected on all that I should be grateful for during the wait—as a food insecure person I thought about the food. One Monday, while doing participant observation, I was thankful for the air conditioned and reliable car during an especially long wait in a motionless and spiraling line. And even though the temperature was in the 70s, the elusive clouds made it feel like the sun was blazing in the seat next to mine. I cranked up the air and locked eyes on a tombstone in the adjacent graveyard. I had enough time to ponder who the deceased person may have been, if they experienced hunger, or Appalachian poverty. Twenty minutes passed and we didn’t move. We did not talk. We did not share stories, recipes, or even wave at the people we knew. We waited together, yet apart, in silence.
"Feeding the hungry can mirror factory work, a government aid office, a restaurant, thrift store, and warehouse."
Waiting in this drive-thru, I noticed the McDonaldization and institutionalization of hunger. I reflected on the care work provided by clients and volunteers, but also the policing of charitable food—a policing system that results in a long afternoon of waiting to make sure that each client is hungry enough (based upon their employment and income) and has not visited within the last 31 days—both which would deem them ineligible. After an hour and 15 minutes, I made it to the parking lot and walked past the tent of Gideons handing out free Bibles, past the scripture about Jesus and hunger etched carefully onto every sign, and in front of the line of cars with loud roaring fans (because of the wait). I thought to myself how great it was that all the cars were still running today. As proven by the numerous oil stains that circle the parking lot, that is not always the case. Especially near the end of the month, a time to hurry up—before they close—and wait.
Feeding the hungry can mirror factory work, a government aid office, a restaurant, thrift store, and warehouse. Pallet jacks zip around, the drive-thru maintains efficiency, people from the community come to drop off surplus foods, and more generally, senior people (most volunteers are seniors) are visibly tired as they systematically load prescribed groceries into shopping carts. Four carts must always be ready to go. Two people sit in the drive-thru window and collect IDs to determine client eligibility, boundaries are placed when clients need to be reminded that this is emergency food, and they may only visit every 31 days, so they are denied. If they are eligible to receive food, after a long day of waiting, the drive-thru person scans a barcode that determines the worth of the food they are receiving. Even rotten strawberries have a value to the barcode scanner.
While discussing the magnitude of the line with the food pantry leadership, I was met with smiles and bragging—there is a sense of pride in a drive-thru line this long, so much pride that I sometimes forget this is an emergency food system. Business is thriving. Hunger is real. And the volunteers, mostly retired professionals connected by a church community, wait on folks who have spent the entire afternoon waiting to be fed. Hopefully this time the online tracking system will agree that it has at least been 31 days since their last visit, because if not, they will have to wait. Thirty minutes after the pantry closes cars continue to get in line. Regulars. Even if they are denied again by our system of charity and care, they at least deserve a chance to wait—at least until the next crisis.
Alisha Borck is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. Alisha’s research interests primarily include inequality, food studies, food justice, Appalachia, rurality, political economy, and more broadly, economic anthropology. For her dissertation research, Alisha is currently studying emergency food programs and care work in Appalachian Kentucky. Alisha is also passionate about using storytelling to promote social justice and has shared her “food story” for several audiences throughout the state of Kentucky.
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