A story came out a little while ago as wildfire season was flaring up in California. Apparently certain inmates at California’s prisons are given the chance to “give back to their country” by fighting fires.
While this may make some kind of sense – why shouldn’t prisoners be given something useful to do, rather than spending time in their jail cells? We know that California’s prisons are overcrowded, and their population has grown by about 750% since the 1970s. In California, prisoner abuse is rampant, and so is the unjustified and excessive use of solitary confinement.The chance to escape captivity in this system would be welcome to many.
But there’s something else afoot. Californian authorities are more likely to throw African American men in jail than any other demographic. Even looking at incarceration rates for pot possession only points to this. While white men are more likely to smoke pot than black men, in California, blacks are arrested four times more often for possession than whites. Another example: in California, black children are given two times more suspensions at school than the average student. In many predominantly black schools, over 20% of children receive suspensions. These practices cause more black children to be pushed out of schools. Those children are then more likely to become targets of the justice system. State institutions are so rigged against black children, that people have invented a term for it: the school-to-prison pipeline. California’s prisons give us a striking illustration of what inequality can look like, at its worst. But this isn’t all.
We also know that climate change is what’s actually causing California’s recent surfeit of wildfires. When environmental disasters happen, those who have the least are also those who are the most affected, as we saw all-too-clearly when hurricanes Katrina and Sandy struck. The same holds for climate change: those who had the smallest role in driving it are also the ones who will be the most harmed by it.
So here we have a news story that, on the surface, marks a boon to California’s prisoners. But what’s actually happening is that California’s most disadvantaged are given little option but to form modern-day chain gangs to protect the houses of the advantaged from being burnt down.
This story stands out because it crystallizes the intersection between racism, the prison-industrial complex, and climate change. California’s prisoners are at the mercy of multiple forces, ripped out of their impoverished ghettoes and under-funded high schools and placed in the frontline of today’s environmental disasters. It’s a perfect example of intersectionality: in the current climate, many forms of oppression pile up, and the most oppressed are considered disposable by the legal system and those who continue to support it.
It’s important to notice these symbolic examples that illuminate the system we’re fighting against. They help clarify how our struggles intersect, and how fighting on one front isn’t enough.
Another example stands out. In his work, Zygmunt Bauman describes the lives of 12 million stateless people, stuck in refugee camps all over the world.
Here again we have a situation that might seem benevolent. Violent regimes, warfare, or climate catastrophes push millions from their homes, and organizations like UNHCR help set up vast camps, food, and basic healthcare, providing welcome relief to those who have lost everything. Then, these organizations will help refugees find asylum in well-off countries, providing displaced people with a new home. All of this seems like a win-win: unfortunate events can be dealt with through benevolence, while the displaced are given the ability to work in a new country, better off than they were before.
Yet it looks more like a win-lose. Take for example the plight of Palestinian refugees. Britain, which claimed control over Palestine in 1922, awarded the territory to Zionists in 1947. After successive wars, Israel’s army was able to uproot thousands of Palestinian civilians, leading to 2 million refugees by the year 2000. Many of these people have lived with nothing for several generations, and lead immobile, stagnant lives, with no hope for change. Meanwhile, Britain’s immigration and asylum policies continue to be racist, preferring to award entrance to white refugees over Palestinians or Muslims. When refugees do gain asylum, they face racialized stigma, devaluation of whatever education they have, and a life of low-wage jobs. It’s cheaper for countries to fund refugee camps than to open up their own borders to unwanted aliens. As Bauman says in Liquid Times, “Refugees are the very embodiment of ‘human waste,’ with no useful function to play in the land of their arrival and temporary stay, and with neither an intention nor a realistic prospect that they will be assimilated and incorporated into the new social body.” Refugees – without papers, without status, without a future – are by definition disposable.
Bauman’s observation – informed by his own experience as a political refugee – is an incision into the confusing mess of our world. It cuts to the core of the inequality that exists, and the systems that drive it. It allows us to really see the disposability of the most marginalized. How a system that might seem helpful helps to turn people into trash.
Beggars can’t be choosers
But what if we look at the people that collect, process, and distribute trash? In North America, the food industry and consumers waste about 40% of their food. Much of this wasted food – expired, failed new products, or dented cans – gets recuperated by food banks. Food banks are organizations largely run by volunteers, where corporate food waste gets recovered, stored and redistributed to people that need it. The central US food banking organization, Feeding America, estimated that it distributed more than 3 billion pounds of food a year. In Canada, food banks served about 880,000 people a month in 2012. The enormity of this second-level food system is quite an accomplishment for a network that runs entirely on donations and volunteering.
But food banks are also a recent innovation. The first food bank was started in Phoenix, Arizona in 1967, for the purpose of collecting food that was about to go to waste. By 2010, there were almost 50,000 agencies served by the food bank network. Canada followed the same pattern, where the first food bank was started in Edmonton, Alberta in 1985 and by 2009, 2,906 agencies were served by the nation-wide Food Banks Canada network.
What caused the rise in food banks? It’s widely accepted that food banks came about as a response to welfare cuts in the late ’70s. As governments began cutting off their limbs, people all over the continent stepped up and tried to perform the task that the state had promised to do: feed its people. Noticing this, the US state quickly turned around and sponsored food banks, encouraging the establishment of what is now Feeding America. Food banks are both a reaction to – and created by – neoliberal policies.
In turn, those who have studied the issue of food banks suggest one simple solution: redevelop the welfare state. If food stamp programs, unemployment insurance, and health care were padded up, people would no longer have to rely on food banks for emergencies. Food banks are inadequate solutions to a welfare state stripped of its assets.
But food banks are also symptomatic of another trend: the growth of the food industry. This was made possible by free-trade policies like NAFTA and the increasing power of the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Open markets allowed agri-food giants to become more powerful through centralization, industrialization, and buying out smaller farmers.
The increasing power of the food industry also meant easier access to guilty pleasures. The food system is, more and more, based on the dream of liberty: everyone should be able to choose whatever food they want. In response, the food industry produces new products every day, changing the same ingredients into a new brand, trying to instill the idea that we are choosing, when really we’re just eating the same thing.
This surplus of choice has led to a surplus of food, a high-waste food system, and the formation of an economy of trash. Because it’s cheaper to donate food than to pay for landfill costs, and because volunteers are doing all the sorting for you, food distributors realized they could make a buck while padding up their corporate social responsibility agenda.
At first sight, this doesn’t sound so bad: donate surplus food to the poor, save some money, and look good while doing it, win-win, right? Wrong.
At food banks, benevolent volunteers spend their days sorting through food, carrying boxes, folding boxes, loading the truck, unloading the truck, cooking food that’s about to go bad, freezing it. It’s like they’re trying to freeze hunger, pushing it back just enough so they can stave it off just a little bit longer, one recycled meal at a time.
The people who volunteer at and use food banks include single mothers, those on welfare, retired, ex-convicts, political refugees, children, people of color, recent migrants, and aboriginals. They are the ones who capitalism has abandoned, who are struggling to get by in a world of plenty. They are also the ones who are left to sift through trash, recover it, and help support their own communities with their hours of free labor.
The problem with food banks is that the poor end up paying all the costs: eating crap food that causes cancer, spending hours sorting through wasted food, transporting it, paying gas money to transport it. As a friend of mine put it, “in our society, lower class people are waste disposal units.” We saw before that refugees are treated as trash because of where they are forced to live. If we follow the adage of “you are what you eat,” the poor in North America eat trash, so they are trash. When we treat food as limitless and disposable, we also help to create a society where people become disposable and forced to fend for themselves.
The kicker is that while the food system – and the economy as a whole – is built on the idea of endless choice, those attending food banks are the ones who are unable to choose the food they want to eat. In the land of the American dream, everyone may have the right to choose from an endless variety of foods and to express themselves according to their own taste, but the oppressed are unable to make those choices. Beggars can’t be choosers.
The cost-shifting economy
This brings us back to the issue of welfare. If the problem with food banks also comes down to the explosion of an economy of choice, then is a welfare system – which is geared toward allowing everyone to be choosers – really going to solve that? In other words, if a welfare state existed, you’d have more food waste than ever before, since everyone would become a consumer. Who would sift through that waste? People in other countries?
Food banks present us with a conundrum: they show that welfare alone isn’t enough. We need to disengage from a system of profit that relies on others to sort through the trash. We need an end to an economy that shifts costs to others, that renders people into garbage bins.
The case of inmate firefighters in California helps to show how racism and climate change can intersect. The state of the stateless globally shows how those who are without papers are considered waste, left to rot in refugee camps. Food banks – which help siphon food waste to those in need – illustrate how the burden of a hyper-profitable industry is borne by the dispossessed. Institutions that are cloaked in benevolence help disguise malevolent forces in the world.
And so, food banks, like California’s prisoner firefighters or stateless refugees, symbolize the sad absurdities of society. As the trash bins of the food system, food banks make clear who wins and who has to pick up the pieces and sort the mess. What’s more, food banks show how the old leftist political goals of fixing welfare or food stamps wouldn’t solve a system that is successful by shifting costs on those who are already fighting for their lives.
If we want to work toward a more just future, addressing poverty through state programs isn’t going to cut it. We need to put a halt to the systems that hide and perpetuate inequality. We need to decouple from an economy of infinite choice, an economy of disposability.