The Mathematical Violence of Nutrition Calculus in the U.S. Food Safety Net

Authors: Joshua Lohnes*, West Virginia University
Topics: Food Systems
Keywords: Food, Hunger, Calculation, Governance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Tower Court C, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Second Floor Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper we analyze mathematical interventions that inform access to food for low income families in the United States drawing on two case studies, one from the public sector, the other private. First, the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) dictates the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) money that households receive each month. SNAP is the largest anti-hunger program in the world, allocating $70 billion in food aid each year across US states and territories. Second, Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap (MMG) calculates food insecurity at the county level, a formula that determines the distribution of over 4 billion pounds of food surplus allocated to food charities across the country every year.

Drawing on an entitlement framework (Sen, 1981; Watts and Bohle, 1993), we argue that the algorithmic governance of hunger relief is tied to neoliberal rationalities of scarcity and surplus management, rather than genuine efforts to understand and address nutritional disparities in situ. Divorced from the lived realities of navigating hunger and poverty at the local level, the nutritional gaze that informs access to food entitlements (from the state or private charity) relies on large datasets and computational assumptions that homogenize bodies into single units of analysis, obscuring the multifaceted and intersectional coping strategies that vulnerable and marginalized households employ to access food on a daily basis (Alkon et al, 2013; De Souza, 2019; Dickenson, 2020).

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