Pros and Cons of Emergency Food Sites

By Ryleigh Mullens

Season of Giving

During the season of giving, it is important to remember those with fewer resources than ourselves. Winter can be a challenging time for many individuals and families; as a result, emergency food sites are more active than ever, mobilizing resources for those in need. 

Donations to emergency food shelters like food pantries, community refrigerators, soup kitchens, faith-based food banks, etc. can be a great way to practice mutual aid and support your community. While emergency food sites are diverse in appearance and function, they all serve a common purpose: provide free food to those who need it. 

Emergency Food Sites

Often, emergency food sites are established within close proximity to the demographic they feed, allowing easy access to meals and food on foot. More often than not, these sites are the only place where food is safely accessible, serving food-insecure people living in food deserts. These initiatives tend to have robust outreach programs and reach many people via synergy amongst aid-drive organizations, social media, flyering, word-of-mouth, and resource networking. This not only ensures that folks are aware of their services but also attracts necessary donations. Frequently, restaurant groups, grocery chains, and food supply companies will donate food that would otherwise be wasted, circumventing the landfill, reducing emissions caused by food rot, and connecting edible items with those who need to eat. Although the capacity of every emergency food site is different, they are usually rife with pantry staples and commodity foods like canned fruits and vegetables, shelf-stable bread, and other non-perishable items. All food is effective in the fight against hunger; however, these items do not compose a well-balanced diet. 

Community Refrigerators

Emergency food shelters are often ill-equipped to provide folks with a nutritious diet as they lack the storage necessary to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins. In response to this issue, community refrigerators– beautifully decorated fridges run by volunteers that offer free food to those in need– have been popping up in neighborhoods across the United States, embodying the motto, “Take what you need, leave what you can”. Local businesses or organizations provide electric power to the refrigerators which keep fresh food cool and offer a space for folks to access fruits, vegetables, and eggs. These sites are highly accessible, allowing people to freely come and go without checking their ID or requiring an explanation of need, leading to a more dignified process. In fact, most community fridges put the onus on the donator, requiring that food be labeled with the date donated, expiration date, contents, and allergies of food placed in the fridge. Although small, these emergency food sites are effective, feeding the community with food that is culturally relevant to their neighborhood, reflecting the flavors of the community and the ingredients they prefer. However, many community refrigerators have been forced to discontinue the distribution of fresh, whole foods due to food safety and health concerns presented by public health councils.

Limitations of Sites

Emergency food sites are also criticized for the dearth of agency, dignity, and choice associated with their services. Many sites require justification of need or evidence of experienced hunger, a potentially humiliating process that prevents some food-insecure folks from qualifying and deters others from pursuing the aid they need. Additionally, food donations are often predetermined, providing people in need with prearranged kits or lists of available items in specified quantities that deny self-determination of diet and eliminate choice. These packages tend to be composed of processed items, rarely featuring fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods in large quantities due to perceived risk or lack of resources. Ultimately, no emergency food site is perfect, and, in the fight against hunger, they are effective in reaching those in need. However, emergency food sites are not a long-term solution, serving as a response to a broken system. 

The Root of the Problem

The core of food insecurity is a food system that prioritizes profit over community health. In a country where ⅓ of edible food goes to waste (30 billion pounds a year), it is not a matter of supply failing to meet demand. The root of the issue lies in the distribution of food and the lack of infrastructure to support every individual’s right to a culturally relevant, dignified, nutritious diet. Emergency food sites are a symptom of the agroindustrial food complex, a bandaid fix that will not resolve the root issue. While experts encourage people to continue donating food to these sites, they urge folks to engage with alternative food systems that directly food their communities and support mutual aid.


Effective Alternatives

Gleaning, for example, is an excellent way to donate your time and energy to feed people experiencing hunger or food insecurity while supporting your local farmers. Gleaning is the act of combing through fields of crops, post-harvest, to gather all the B-quality fruit and vegetables that didn’t make it to market and wouldn’t be harvested by the farmer. Gleaning organizations are careful to ensure every crop (although not as pretty as their market counterpart) is edible and safe to eat before distributing them directly to community members. This prevents food from being wasted, allows farmers to receive a charitable tax deduction, and provides fresh whole foods for free to those who need them via community centers, housing shelters, and farmers' markets. 

Show Your Support

Engaging with local food politics and systems is another fantastic way to create an equitable distribution of healthy foods. Vote with your fork and support farmers’ markets that are established in low-income, culturally diverse communities- these sites are strategically placed to accommodate folks on foot and are committed to providing fresh whole, foods. Supporting the farmers who attend these markets demonstrates solidarity amongst community members and stimulates hyper-local economies. Local farmers’ markets often leverage food assistance programs, increasing the worth of their SNAP, EBT, or WIC credits so folks can access healthy foods offered at markets. Take time this holiday season to learn more about how you can engage with your local food system, donate to neighborhood emergency food sites, discover hunger-ending initiatives, and serve community members experiencing food insecurity.