Dignity, Respect and Accountability in Free Food Distribution
July 28, 2022
By Witnesses to Hunger New Haven
Witnesses to Hunger (WTH) New Haven is a collective of people with first-hand experience of the struggle with not having enough money and food to get by each month, as well as researchers, policy advocates, and fellow activists to form a diverse coalition. Many of us are lifelong New Haven residents. We are supported on the important issue discussed in this letter by the organizations listed below.
The COVID crisis has resulted in more people needing help with food, and a greater need among those who relied on free food before. In response to the increased demand, it has been heartening to see well-meaning people setting up new free food options. However, unfortunately, some of those providing free food are doing so in a way that disrespects and demeans those to whom they are giving the food, as shown by our personal experiences.
Some of us receiving food have been spoken to rudely, aggressively and insensitively. Leon, a WTH member with serious COVID-related health problems, was verbally attacked by a person distributing food when he tried to wait near the front of the line. Being spoken to aggressively or rudely is ‘kicking people when they’re down’, as Lisa, another WTH member said. We have also been given inadequate and confusing information about when and where to get food. Lisa’s cousin waited in a long line at a pop-up pantry, but the expected food was never delivered. The Salvation Army stepped in to provide food for some, but many got nothing. When we are not informed and wait for food that never shows up, we waste time, lose the opportunity to find food elsewhere, and, worst of all, we go hungry. A meal is not something that can simply be put off for another day. And, disrespect is not a problem we experience only at pop-up pantries. It happens at some brick and mortar pantries too.
There is no need for food to be provided disrespectfully or inefficiently. Numerous experienced organizations and systems, including those signing this letter, already know how to distribute food properly. Kim, another WTH member, went to a pop-up pantry that was organized by the New Haven Public Schools food services department. “When I got there, I saw she’d already started, so I drove up, popped my trunk and was out of there. No one had to wait for hours,” said Kim. These experienced organizations distribute food simply to make sure that everyone has enough to eat, not because they want to make themselves feel better. They treat everyone with respect.
So that our system of free food distribution operates with dignity and respect, and is accountable to users and providers alike, we need standards and guidelines to support newcomers, and to provide clarity to existing providers. To back these up, a well-publicized ombudsperson should be appointed within city government so anyone who experiences disrespect at a food pantry can contact them and hold the provider accountable. Additionally, all brick and mortar food pantries should be required to post the ombudsperson’s number; and all pop-up pantries operating within New Haven should be required to include the number on their fliers and online announcements.
Ultimately free food is only a stop-gap: no-one should go hungry or have to line up for free food. We need to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. But, while we do the essential work of making sure everyone has the food they need until those root causes are fixed, we must ensure that we provide that food properly and with full respect for the people receiving it.
Witnesses to Hunger New Haven, is a group of community members with lived experience of hunger and poverty advocating for food security. Their mission is to unite their community in New Haven, Connecticut, in identifying, addressing, and creating positive solutions to food insecurity through sharing their stories of lived experiences, investigating the underlying causes of food insecurity, educating their community and policy-makers, encouraging and supporting community voices, and advocating for social and economic justice. Find out more about Witnesses to Hunger New Haven at witnessestohungernh.org.