Emergency food bureaucracies, compulsory gifts, and the contradictions of public-private hunger relief.

Authors: Joshua Lohnes*, West Virginia University
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Rural Geography
Keywords: Charity, Emergency, Food, Bureaucracy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Grand Ballroom D, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The emergency food network in the United States has evolved into a bureaucratic behemoth regulating the billions of pounds of “free” food flowing through food charities across the country. There are two primary institutions governing these food gifts, one public, the other private. Each programs establish goals, rules and disciplining mechanisms that shape responses to hunger in different places. The USDA oversees the allocation of surplus agricultural commodities to states through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Feeding America, the 3rd largest charity in the country, works with food producers and retailers to recover food waste and process tax write offs for donors. This paper draws on four years of research within West Virginia’s emergency food network to analyze ways in which emergency food distribution contracts seek to universalize a highly heterogeneous network of actors through policies defined in Washington D.C and Chicago. The friction of distance between each layer governing food gifts contributes to differing responses along the bureaucratic chain, particularly among the volunteer bureaucrats working with vulnerable households in situ. Some strictly conform to or even enhance the terms of their contracts because it helps them operate their feeding programs efficiently. Others bend, break or outright denounce what they deem to be burdensome and incomprehensible rules misaligned with their mission.

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