Policing Hunger

A picture of the shelves of the food pantry

Imagine thinking someone’s hair & nails look too nice for them to be hungry.

Watching the local news a few years ago, I saw a story about how my (now former) employer won a grant to create food pantries. I worked at a community college with several campuses, & the grant allotted each campus money for these pantries. It was literally news to me. Nothing on our campus indicated this was a thing.

I emailed my administrators asking about our campus pantry. We had a one-building campus. I knew every inch of that place. I knew nothing about a pantry. Turns out, our administration knew nothing about the grant. After more investigation, I learned only a few people on campus knew about the money, & only one was using the resources to give to certain students. (That’s a story for another day.) The whole thing seemed questionable.

I inquired more & asked if a campus food pantry was something we could create. As was typically the case at that campus, I was given the go-ahead to do it myself. Unpaid. On my own time. But feeding students was more important to me than getting paid, so I took on the project. Eventually, it became a service-learning project for my sociology students that semester, & it was one of the most rewarding things I ever did as a college educator.

However, the project brought frequent frustration & unfortunate irony.

My former campus is in a wealthier suburb. It’s literally at the bottom of the hill of an exclusive gated community with a country club & million-dollar homes. At night from some classrooms, you could see into those homes. They had every light on as if the electricity bill was a penny or two. It felt grotesque knowing some of my students couldn’t even afford lunch, but the hill looking down on us was home to cars worth more than I made in a year. It also felt grotesque because our provost lived in that community. (That’s also a story for another day.)

With a culture of wealth comes a reverence for capitalism. With a reverence for capitalism comes a disdain for the poor. Not only do the wealthy often think they should have zero need for food pantries, but for them, anyone asking for food is unthinkable, shameful, and embarrassing.

I’d have thought that mentality to be an exaggeration in the suburbs of Iowa, but it manifested in front of me every single week.

First, to reduce the stigma on students asking to use the food pantry, we didn’t call it a food pantry. We called it a “snack & supply hut,” as if any student was fooled by a euphemism. They knew what it was. They aren’t stupid.

Second, when we did an anonymous questionnaire to determine need, some students asked for beer & MAGA hats. The majority said they would donate but didn’t need it. Even anonymous, it seemed students treated hunger like a joke or something shameful to admit. Thankfully, enough students also expressed a need for hygiene products, educational supplies, and gas cards. That gave me hope.

Third, our administration was uncomfortable with having a grab-&-go cabinet in the commons area. Other campuses had that, so I figured it was a given. When I asked, one administrator bristled because he didn’t like how it would look, & he didn’t want to pay for it, & we didn’t have enough from the grant to cover that. Only after I attempted to have one donated did he relent. (I failed to secure one, by the way.) Another administrator’s (a devout Christian) concern was, “What if people who don’t need it us it?”

That last question became pervasive. I was asked that more often than “how many students are going hungry” or “why are our students going hungry.” Faculty, staff, & administration repeatedly expressed their concerns to me (quietly or through email) over misuse of the pantry.

“I don’t want my donations going to people who don’t need it.”

“Are we tracking how often they use it?”

“What if students use it every day?”

“What if they take food to other people who aren’t students?”

“A girl who clearly just had her nails & hair done asked to use it.”

How fucking dare her be hungry AND look how she wants, right?

Every time I got a comment or question, I felt the creep of anxiety in my stomach. It was the sense that something was wrong, but I wasn’t clever enough to respond in a way that urged compassion rather than stigmatizing skepticism.

At the same time, I was teaching my sociology students about welfare, the discriminatory foundation of welfare reform, how the 2008 recession caused middle & upper-class folks to seek out food pantries, & how doing so was shrouded in shame & stigma. We watched videos from NBC’s American Now: Lost in Suburbia that showed people exactly like the ones in our suburb. Those folks were parking far away from food pantries when they used them because they were afraid of the shame America puts on poverty. My students wanted to create a safe place for their classmates to grab a granola bar or mac & cheese between classes. I remain endlessly proud of them for that.

Meanwhile, the pantry itself was kept behind a locked door, & students had to ask at the front desk to access it, have their student IDs recorded (“just to keep a count,” administration said), be walked down to the pantry, & be watched while they took no more than a few items a day (a compromise I put in place to get administration to stop asking me about supposed pantry misuse).

Eventually, I got so tired of the whispered stigma from the so-called leaders at the campus that I started saying, “It’s not my business.” What I wanted to scream was, “HOW DO YOU FUCKING POLICE HOW HUNGRY SOMEONE IS?!” & “IT’S A FUCKING GRANOLA BAR.”

I wish this experience was an aberration of privilege, but it’s a microcosm. It’s another way in which those with power & access control even the most basic needs of humanity. From the complete lack of interest in creating a food pantry for our students to the gatekeeping, it was a perfect & horrid example of how asking to survive is riddled with discrimination & shame.

I recently posted a text-based graphic on Instagram encouraging a conversation about food insecurity. Maybe the graphic was ugly. Maybe I didn’t pick the right words. But it performed as one of my lowest liked posts ever. I can’t help but think the reason why it had zero comments is because people are afraid to talk about food insecurity. We are the students at my old campus who are afraid some old white folks are gonna snatch the granola bar out of our hands & tell us we aren’t deserving.

The imposed social morality around food is, at best, micromanagement. At worst, it’s causing people to die. It’s something we need to unlearn.

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