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The emotional work of provisioning ‘free’ food: stigma and shame in food assistance programs in Boulder, Colorado

Authors: Heide Bruckner*, University of Colorado Boulder, Department of Geography
Topics: Food Systems, Cultural and Political Ecology, Urban Geography
Keywords: food insecurity, hunger, visceral, emotion, bodies, neoliberal, food assistance
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Food justice and anti-hunger advocates have often focused on food insecurity through the lens of political economy and/or geographic proximity to food retail. A common stopgap measure to address the symptoms of hunger are thus “free” food programs—through emergency food assistance and distribution. While these programs can temporarily reduce food insecurity, what food system practitioners and food geographers often ignore are the emotional and affective barriers to food access. In this paper, I outline some of the emotional barriers which hinder food insecure people from receiving “free” food, drawing attention to a socio-spatial landscape of food assistance permeated by guilt and a neoliberal power of stigma. Based on research in Boulder, Colorado with the food waste non-profit, Boulder Food Rescue, I discuss ways that the emotional toll of food insecurity is manifested in individual experiences as well as the collective atmosphere of anxiety and stigma. This research responds to scholarship in geographies of food and emotion, further extending analysis into how the food insecure experience visceral discomforts of (lacking/receiving) food. Finally, I draw attention to the pioneering work of Boulder Food Rescue to highlight practices which may reduce emotional anxiety about food assistance, while simultaneously giving voice to the food insecure as active participants in shaping their communities.

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