Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: The right to food is about more than free meals

by Cheryl Prichard and Josh Lohnes

Have you ever been hungry? Not simply missing or being late for dinner but the hunger that gnaws away while you know that you may not be able to eat today or maybe not tomorrow. Being food insecure means not knowing where your next meal is coming from. It is a mental and physical stress permeating our society but often not discussed openly.

Monongalia County has two dozen meal programs, backpack programs and food pantries combating food insecurity. One of these programs is the Community Kitchen Inc.

The Kitchen is a nonprofit, nondenominational entity housed in Trinity Episcopal Church that has been serving free lunches for 38 years. Many of our neighbors who are food insecure are employed but without sufficient funds to meet their nutritional needs. Students, families with children, those with disabilities, elderly individuals and others who are houseless regularly rely on the more than 24,000 meals the Kitchen has provided so far this year. New individuals regularly visit the Kitchen and numbers continue to increase. One patron asked for eight meals to provide for herself and the seven teenagers she struggles to feed. Last year approximately 8,400 people across Monongalia County relied on food charities to make ends meet and that number is growing.

According to a recent U.S. Census survey, over 21% of West Virginians reported struggling to provide adequate food. Food prices have risen by 13% over the past year. Coupled with increased costs of fuel, rent and other consumer goods, many families struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living and are compelled to navigate a web of services across the city and county to survive. The Community Kitchen is one familiar place where all are welcome.

Last December, the City of Morgantown adopted a resolution supporting the Right to Food, formally recognizing that food access is central to our community’s efforts to be a place of welcome and inclusion. When food insecurity persists, it opens pathways for eroding the free, democratic and inclusive society we aspire to live in.

Providing free meals through programs such as the Community Kitchen and local food pantries does not end food insecurity. We must collectively explore ways to build meaningful actions on the city’s resolution that go beyond food charity.

Food insecurity is not an isolated problem — it intersects with low wages, the huge cost of health care and limited access to housing and mental health services. These are problems that our community can and must address, and the best place to do so is around a meal with those most impacted by these issues. As we get the word out about nutrition assistance programs, we must actively break down feelings of shame and the perceived need to apologize for being hungry. The idea that those working to survive every day are not working hard enough, or worse, that they are a threat to our community is wrong.

One option is to establish a public restaurant open to all: one that centers the dignity of all eaters and creates opportunities for all of us to share in the collective burden of ensuring that everyone in our city has the right to nutritious, culturally appropriate food. Such a restaurant would pay workers living wages and support a community food system that keeps wealth circulating in our local economy.

It’s time to think of more than charity or continue to deepen social divides between those who can afford to eat and those who can’t. Moving beyond charity means envisioning a model of daily food provisioning that engages people from all walks of life to share food and table, whether they have the capacity to pay for it or not.

Cheryl Prichard is a retired WVU professor and an active volunteer with Empty Bowls and the Community Kitchen for   the past 15 years. She serves as president of Community Kitchen’s Board of Directors. Josh Lohnes directs the Food Justice Lab in the WVU Center for Resilient Communities. He wrote a dissertation on the political economy of food banks and rise of charitable food networks in the U.S. He has been engaged in anti-hunger, nutrition assistance networks for 10 years.