Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Politics of Need Interpretation at the UTSU food bank (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Nil Alt

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Volunteering at the food bank can be heavy on the soul, especially when one needs to handle food donations that consist of damaged or rotten foods. The UTSU food bank, where I volunteered for my ethnographic practicum course,  was no exception. One of the main tasks I helped with at the food bank was sorting through the produce delivery. The job entailed throwing away moldy beets, picking out the slimy kale leaves or cutting off the rotten ends of carrots. Given that the majority of foods handed out at the food banks include dented canned goods, or other non-perishable items approaching recommended best before dates, produce is often regarded as the only ‘healthy’ option. And when the produce does not look healthy either, the front liners, i.e. volunteers feel quite upset.

After a day of such unpleasant experiences, one of the volunteers announced that she would write a report on how poorly-run the food bank was. She would address the report to the student union. Her particular critique was about at the kinds of food the untitled5food bank gave out. She thought that the food hampers could improve if the union put more effort into building alliances for higher-quality donations. Another volunteer concurred and argued that the UTSU should allocate more money from their budget to the food bank so that the food bank could give out produce of better quality.

The UTSU food bank volunteers often criticize the food bank for its low-quality food, and they are absolutely right about that. Yet their proposed solution of offering ‘better quality’ food is often predicated on their own interpretation of what entails better quality food. For example, the assumption that the UTSU food bank users need more fresh produce has no basis since there has been no consultation with the users on this issue so far.

According to my interactions with the UTSU food bank users, except for someone who is lactose intolerant, all my interlocutors indicated that they needed more milk, yogurt and eggs. When it comes to produce, most users have mentioned how they skipped one or two types of vegetables each week since they were not familiar with these vegetables and did not know how to consume them. While giving out produce, I also noted being asked multiple times what ‘parsnips’ or ‘beets’ were. Although I tried to provide cooking tips on the spot, the user would typically pass on that vegetable. Considering the quality of the produce at the food bank along with the fact that most users come from different countries, it makes sense why local vegetables are not the most popular foods. Yet the presumption that bringing local produce to the food banks would solve the ‘nutrition’ problem prevails.

In her book Women, welfare and the politics of need interpretation, Fraser (1987) inquires about the “social meanings” and “tacit norms and assumptions” the US welfare programs have made about women’s needs. She reminds that while women are the largest group using the welfare services, these services answer to women’s alleged needs that are identified based on ‘specific and … contestable interpretations” instead of direct consultations with these women. Yet, these interpretations, which clearly demonstrate the assumptions made about the women, are not always recognized as interpretations. This occlusion serves to keep analysis and critique at bay. As a result, a passive kind of citizenship is constructed where the state preserves the “power to define and satisfy people’s needs” (p.100).

untitled6Similarly, the needs attributed to the UTSU food bank users (healthy foods=fresh vegetables and fruits) assume a certain construction of these students. The imagined student subject who uses the food bank is a physical body, dislodged from its social and cultural context. A body that is not fed enough nutrition. A body that must be wanting more fresh foods because it deserves to be healthier. This narrative relegates the students who use food banks as passive individuals in need of charitable help. Yet, the UTSU food bank users I have talked with are resourceful and resilient individuals who are my only interlocutors with  an explicit and coherent critique of campus food insecurity. Their critique addresses the inadequate Ontario student loans that take ages to come through, the disproportionately high (international) tuition fees, and the ridiculously low funding packages offered to graduate students. In other words, the users know that student food insecurity is not only a nutrition-related problem and cannot simply be solved by providing better produce at the food bank. They see the root cause as student poverty because they experience it on a daily basis.

If student food insecurity is seen as a serious issue at the University of Toronto, there needs to take place a debate as to why we need a campus food bank at a globally top-ranked university like the University of Toronto. Instead of trying to improve the quality and quantity of food offered at the UTSU food bank, could we ask more fundamental questions such as ‘why is there a need for a campus food bank?’, ‘what is the problem to which the UTSU food bank is proposed as a solution? ‘or ‘in what other ways can campus communities display their care for one another?’. I believe that these questions are capable of opening up progressive lines of inquiry and possibilities for student politics. Moving beyond improving the content of the food hamper might compel students to rethink the connections between poverty and higher international student fees, backlog in the student loan dispatching system and the skyrocketing tuition fees. When academics like Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University business professor, make public statements to CBC that say “food banks shouldn’t apologize for existing. In fact, we should make them even more efficient” (McCue, 2018) they should think twice about “the social meanings [and] tacit norms and assumptions” that have become normalized in the food insecurity discourse (Fraser, 1987, p.105) .

Works cited:

Fraser, N. (1987). Women, welfare and the politics of need interpretation. Thesis Eleven, 17(1), 88-106.

Mc Cue, D. (2018, December 9, 2018). Food banks no solution to rising cost of groceries in Canada, argues anti-poverty advocate. CBC Radio. Retrieved from”>/checkup/food-banks-no-solution-to-rising-cost-of-groceries-in-canada-argues-anti-poverty-advocate-1.4938335?fbclid=IwAR2tr2ZtacXLm6VCuyeucqrTJmNf6l3Fai3TmmFfG-zMW5TnqoGRFsmuu5E

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