Review: Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries

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Eriko Shimada

Rebecca de Souza, Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries, MIT Press, 2019. xiii, 312 pp.

In Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries, Rebecca de Souza argues that stigmatizing narratives shape the operations of food pantries and ultimately serve to uphold an unjust food system. De Souza eloquently illustrates the presence of neoliberal stigma, “a particular kind of Western and American narrative that focuses on individualism, hard work, and personal responsibility as defining attributes of human dignity and citizenship” (17) within the context of food pantries where the hungry and food insecure people can receive food at no or little cost. Further, this form of stigma is racialized, gendered, and classed and circulates around the hungry and food insecure people. De Souza argues neoliberal stigma flourishes at food pantries where well-intentioned white volunteers from privileged classes feed the Other—food pantry clients, disproportionately from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Feeding the Other is pertinent given the severe and widespread hunger and food insecurity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic against the backdrop of intensified calls for racial justice worldwide after the death of George Floyd. 

The book is a fruit of de Souza’s four-year long ethnographic fieldwork in two faith-based food pantry communities in Minnesota. De Souza is a fairly recent immigrant from Bangalore, India, who moved to the U.S. as a graduate student. With a keen eye for “discursive erasures and microaggressions common to any minoritized community” (31), de Souza demonstrates how the dominant discourses surrounding hunger—created by “the voices of privilege” (49)—stigmatize and silence the hungry and food insecure people. By foregrounding the voices of food pantry clients, de Souza provides a counter discourse that illuminates the pervasive injustice embedded not only in food pantry spaces but also American life in general, from poverty governance to police brutality, that disproportionately affects BIPOC individuals and calls for more equitable rights and a justice-based approach to reduce hunger and food insecurity. 

The first two chapters of Feeding the Other depict the current state of the unjust food system in the U.S. De Souza explains whiteness as the standpoint of privilege, power, and freedom that has been historically constructed and institutionally maintained in service of white domination. In Chapters 3 through 7, de Souza highlights different facets of the unjust food system by sharing interview transcripts with food pantry stakeholders, predominantly clients from BIPOC communities. She encourages readers to reflect upon and examine their own actions and biases by tactfully using the concept of whiteness, privilege, and neoliberal stigma. De Souza concludes with practical implications as well as policy recommendations for expanded entitlements, minimum wage increase, an anti-corporate food regime, and increased opportunities for people to grow their own food. Some chapters also have a field note section written in a more personal and conversational tone, allowing readers to glance at de Souza’s sensibilities.

De Souza frames neoliberal stigma as stemming from neoliberalism, a conservative economic and political ideology premised on the idea that society should be shaped by the free market with minimal social expenditures and intervention by government. Neoliberalism gained popularity in the 1980’s during Reagan’s presidency through his anti-poor rhetoric. Reagan’s narrative of a welfare queen, a stigmatizing label often directed toward Black single mothers, epitomizes neoliberal stigma. De Souza argues that neoliberal discursive tactics which frame welfare recipients as lazy, irresponsible, and dishonest, are so successful that neoliberal ideals of individualism, hard work, and self-help become internalized and reformulate personal identity such that even the oppressed are swayed into conservative political dogma. It also shapes legislation, such as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act which legitimized harsh surveillance, censorship, and vilification of poor people in the public sphere.

De Souza witnesses these practices being mirrored by self-described “non-racist”, well-meaning white volunteers who view hunger as an individual rather than a structural problem. They frame solutions to hunger in individual moral terms such as self-help and hard work and do not acknowledge how systemic racism fuels hunger or manifests as food deserts, food swamps, and grocery gaps. Based on this neoliberal logic, many volunteers treat food pantry clients with suspicion, as if they need to be governed or disciplined and needlessly stigmatize them despite the presence of abundant food resources in the food pantries under study. 

Neoliberal stigma offers a convenient explanation for hunger, poverty, and racial inequity to these volunteers. However, de Souza argues this explanation is false. Poverty results from racialized, gendered, and classed histories and systems of pervasive inequality, unjustness, and disenfranchisement in the U.S. The volunteers are unaware that their charity is complicit in an unjust food system built on the foundation of neoliberal capitalism and further limits food pantry clients’ access to food. By rationalizing neoliberal stigma with uncritical attitudes toward racial justice, de Souza argues, well-meaning white volunteers allow the government to discount its responsibility for the well-being of all citizens. Such well-being cannot be achieved without adequate, healthful, and culturally appropriate food. She observes that seemingly innocent charity work can be harmful to hungry and food insecure people in the long-term, and is conducted from a place of privilege and control that allows white volunteers “to gaze down at Others on the rungs beneath” (47). 

De Souza argues that hunger is a symptom of poverty that requires a political solution. Food pantries often do not view themselves as political entities, but de Souza believes that is a missed opportunity because they are well-positioned to amplify the voices of those who experience hunger and food insecurity and raise critical consciousness of everyone involved with anti-hunger efforts. Through critical interrogation on whiteness at multiple levels, consciousness-raising efforts, and meaningful dialogues, she believes that food pantries can change the dominant narratives of hungry and food insecure people, disrupt neoliberal stigma, and stand in solidarity with the clients to bring about food justice.

Feeding the Other is unique in the sense that de Souza centers, honors, and integrates lived vocabularies of the hungry and food insecure people, predominately from BIPOC communities, who often have the heightened critical awareness of the impasse they face in the current unjust food system. By amplifying the voices of food pantry clients—rich in their complexity, experience, morality, wisdom, spirit, and resilience—de Souza maps the intersectionality of oppression in an unjust food system from the perspectives of the oppressed.  She accomplishes this by bringing together theoretical perspectives from a broad range of disciplines to create a coherent, hopeful message not only for food justice but also BIPOC liberation.


Eriko Shimada is currently pursuing the Sustainability Graduate Certificate at Portland State University where she also earned her BA in Sociology and Master of Real Estate Development.  She is interested in studying the intersection of civil rights and urban conservation for the promotion of social and environmental justice.