What we call our country’s “emergency” food system consists primarily of food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens. A food pantry hands out packages of food direct to people in need. If an establishment offers hot meals, then they are often called a soup kitchen. Food banks usually provide a warehouse function for pantries, kitchens and other aid agencies like after school programs and senior centers. Maine has one food bank; Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provides food to over 400 organizations.
The idea of the food bank in the U.S. emerged in the late 1960s. A soup kitchen in Phoenix, AZ struggled to manage all of its food donations. A volunteer developed the idea of food banking to manage that inventory for that kitchen and other feeding organizations. During that same time frame, the Black Panther Party was developing its “Survival Programs” intended to support community access to basic resources. They developed initiatives including the “Free Food” program, which accessed and stored food until it was distributed in the community.
Since then, hundreds of food banks have been established in the U.S. Dramatic growth occurred in the 1980s, for example, when the government made significant cuts in the Food Stamp program. Food banks, pantries and kitchens emerge in times of economic hardship when people lose jobs and incomes decrease.
Food banks have become an accepted part of America's response to hunger. Some see the growth and increase in number of food pantries as evidence of active, caring community that is independent of the state. Others are concerned that food banks erode support for welfare programs that are designed to more equitably and efficiently meet the needs of hungry people.
Emergency food aid has become “the new normal” for low-income families in financial crisis. Food pantries have become the default option as poor people are forced to rely on the charity of others when access to adequate income does not allow them to put food on their table. While people who organize pantries often do so with great commitment and sacrifice, they will testify that this emergency food distribution network has not been able to stall the steady increase of poverty. It is neither a sustainable nor a comprehensive solution to meeting the needs of hungry people.
While our Council supports the network of 50 or so pantries in Cumberland County (noting that a few operations open and close each year), we agree that these should be viewed as a temporary solution. Our nation and our communities must organize our economies to achieve the goal of consistent access to nutritious food that is each person’s right.