Food and Crisis

Feeding the Crisis: Care and Abandonment in America’s Food Safety Net, by Maggie Dickinson (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Eve Vincent, Macquarie University

The summer of corn. Across New York City, emergency food pantries supplied  those who relied upon them with preserved kernels and little else. “I’ll eat the whole can because I’m hungry,” one recipient told anthropologist Maggie Dickinson, despite his unease about the health effects of his newly monotonous diet (p. 137). Corn—that versatile plant, heavily subsidized crop, and source of the ubiquitous sweetener High Fructose Corn Syrup that is so central to the United States’ industrialized food system—was suddenly all that was left to feed the hungry poor.

For two years, Dickinson volunteered in a North Brooklyn food pantry. The location for her fieldwork was carefully chosen. Dickinson explains that in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, New York was one of the only places across America that persisted in imposing food stamp work requirements. Federally funded food stamps have been rebranded as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP beneficiaries who are not elderly, disabled, or caring for a child need to prove they work for at least twenty hours a week. In chapter six, Dickinson closely examines then mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision of the city as a business that needed to shore up the supply of productive and healthy work-ready bodies, and shed those citizens it no longer needed.

Another reason for undertaking research in North Brooklyn is that Dickinson is not seeking to tell an “exceptional story” (p. 20). While ethnographies of those whose lives are perceived as most abject are important they also titillate and have a certain cachet as dark anthropology; Dickinson instead highlights the range of community residents she encountered at the food pantry: many “were homeless and struggled with addiction, others were barely clinging to a middle-class lifestyle” (p. 18). There’s a latent critique in here of the way the discipline continues to designate some subjects worthier of interest than others.

During her two years at the pantry, Dickinson worked alongside others to sustain the lives of people who can’t undertake waged work, decide not to do denigrating work, can’t find work, or whose work does not pay them enough to survive. Dickinson deftly discusses poverty’s lived effects, health inequities, welfare rationalities, the devaluing of care labor, and the changing landscape of work. A series of characters are humanely sketched among the thicket of acronyms associated with welfare organizations.

Centrally, Dickinson identifies an erroneous perception at the heart of contemporary understandings of the post-Fordist welfare state. Rather than being radically reduced in the wake of Clinton’s welfare reform agenda, ”social spending targeted to the poor has, in fact, grown” (p. 9). Specifically, SNAP rolls have swelled. Dickinson shows that America’s social safety net has been retooled to underwrite low-wage precarious labor. The other myth exposed is the assumption that those excluded from state assistance in the post-welfare reform period, or “abandoned” as the book title suggests, have come to depend on charity. In fact, “shadow state institutions” subsidize the emergency soup kitchens and food pantries accessed by those people ineligible for SNAP (p. 137).

The main narrative of the book gets underway in chapter three, which elaborates the retooling of food assistance, now used in conjunction with sanctions to discipline low-wage labor. Dickinson identifies a prevailing assumption about good motherhood that insists even “low paid, inflexible or coercive” work is preferable to undertaking unpaid care work for one’s kin (p. 54). Gender remains central to chapter four, which examines the way men use food to fulfill their caring responsibilities. An important and ethnographically rich discussion of gendered volunteer labor comprises chapter five. Chapter six moves to explore discourses and policies surrounding obesity: the imperative to ensure health is both caring and calculated, as the sicknesses of the poor burden social spending. Chapter seven sees Dickinson think with her research participants to argue for a new politics of distribution.

As well as volunteering in the food pantry, Dickinson helped people apply for a range of public benefits. This advocacy work with research participants as they negotiate bureaucratic processes and access social services is admirable and persuasively justified. Yet it also perhaps explains why a realm of more intimate experience remains inaccessible to the reader: the phenomenology of hunger as an embodied condition, for example. I wondered if Dickinson was concerned that to seek even more access to these lives would represent another layer of intrusion into homes already under welfare surveillance? Catherine Fennell encountered this ethical and representational dilemma while researching housing in post-welfare Chicago, and I am acutely aware of it in researching Australia’s recent radical welfare reform measures targeted to Indigenous Australians.

Dickinson’s title riffs off the classic English account of the crisis of hegemony in the lead up to Thatcher’s election, Policing the Crisis. The crisis Dickinson wants to evoke, as I understand it, is the quotidian one her research participants constantly contend with as they fret about eviction, attempt to correct administrative errors with severe consequences, and carefully count out coins hoping to have enough for bus fare before electing to walk. This is a kind of everyday crisis produced by the brutalities of neoliberal capitalism: rising rates of inequality and extreme poverty, increasingly punitive and conditional welfare systems, stigmatized workfare programs, and the ascendancy of individualized explanations for poverty (as well as for crime). All this is well established and comes to bear on the lives of Dickinson’s research participants. “Feeding the crisis” has a double meaning then—this everyday social crisis is fueled and deepened by the forms of food assistance described here. Still, those whose lives are shaped by everyday crises are being kept fed, if inadequately and sometimes monotonously. Instead of providing housing, better jobs, recognition for care work or policies that address wage stagnation, the provision and indeed expansion of food assistance is the only kind of fix that can be politically countenanced. Dickinson’s engrossing, clear and important contribution to the study of comparative welfare reform points to an urgent need to expand the range of options that are politically thinkable in the present.