I recall sitting with a few volunteers on the loading dock of a small, rat-infested warehouse in Hartford, Connecticut almost 40 years ago to this day. We were stewing over what to do with a truckload of nearly rotten potatoes that constituted the first donation to our just-opened food bank. The decision turned out to be pretty simple. As soon as the donor was out of sight, we shoveled them into a nearby dumpster.
Like hundreds of similar funky start-ups of the late 1970s and early 1980s, that food bank—later to be known as Foodshare—would grow into a state-of-the-art warehouse occupying several acres of land. In recent years, it has been responsible for delivering millions of pounds of donated food annually to Connecticut’s portion of the nation’s 37 million (pre-COVID) food insecure people.
As Dr. Katie Martin lays out in her highly readable and important first book Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries, these giant non-profit institutions are no longer your mother’s food bank. Martin is writing about the 370 giant regional food banks and their network of 60,000 local food pantries that distribute well in excess of 4 billion pounds of food every year. A bare fraction of these charitable food providers existed prior to 1980, and as Martin reminds us, today’s “generation of younger adults has never known a time without…food banks and canned food drives.”
Perhaps due to their omnipresent and sometimes all-consuming nature, food banks have attracted their fair share of critics, of which this writer has been one. A keyword search of this literature would surface “disempowering,” “paternalistic,” “apolitical,” “self-serving,” and “purveyors of crappy food” as some of the less charitable tags associated with these charities. While acknowledging food banks’ shortcomings and their often-faltering attempts to address the root cause of hunger – poverty – Martin takes a pragmatic and prescriptive approach. “My goal for the book,” she asserts, “is…to reinvent the way we provide charitable food in America.”
Martin brings an authoritative voice to her task, having spent three decades in America’s anti-hunger trenches as an academic, researcher, and program developer, including work at the aforementioned Foodshare where she’s currently employed. As such, she offers readers a step-by-step guide to turning these facilities into compassionate vehicles for human transformation. Her clean, conversational narrative makes this book my first choice for food bank volunteers, staff, board members, and students who want training, inspiration, or just a chance to reflect on what they are doing and where there are opportunities for improvements. Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries has just enough “how-to” detail to get your started, and the pull-out quotes, action steps, and resource lists at the end of each chapter are enormously helpful tools.
Trigger warning: If you’re a long-time food pantry volunteer who gets nervous around change, you may want to avoid this book. But if you’re ready to help the hungry become “guests” rather than cases; if you want to move them from stigma to status, from embarrassment to empowerment, and even reject the ramen to raise up healthy, restorative food, then this book is for you.
A 2014 survey of the nation’s emergency food recipients found that the phrase “emergency food” no longer applies. Sixty-three percent of its respondents, report using food pantries on a regular basis because their low-paying/no-paying jobs don’t provide enough income to buy food. That’s the problem. Until this nation musters the political will to address that issue head on, Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries offers the next best solution.