Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

“Counter-movement, Neoliberal Platoon, or Re-Gifting Depot? Understanding Decommodification in U.S. Food Banks” John Lindenbaum

Presented by John Lindenbaum, CSU Anthropology/Geography, Ph.D. Geography, University of California, Berkeley

On Friday, October 20, 2013 John Lindenbaum, CFAT Associate and Special Adjunct Professor Anthropology / Geography at CSU (Geography Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley) presented ‘Counter-movement, Neoliberal Platoon, or Re-Gifting Depot? Understanding Decommodification in U.S. Food Banks’. This presentation explored a variety of ways that we can analyze the position of food banks within U.S. commodity networks.

Dr. Lindenbaum commenced the presentation by explaining the function of US food banks. Food banks are part of an emergency system that redistributes donated food, with contributions deriving from large corporations, the federal government, and individuals. Due to increasing US food insecurity, more people than ever are reliant on this food source and 1 in 6 Americans now use food banks at least once a year.  Given their importance, Lindenbaum’s research aims to explain how values and behaviors change through the food bank network.

Many scholars have argued that in a capitalist society, the ability for everything to be commodified has almost been realized. However, the process of de-commodification allows for a change in value in the product; ‘a separate circuit for the realization of use value and for the suspension of exchange value’ (Henderson 2004). Decommodification promotes a new set of values while diminishing prior ones. In terms of food banks, this opens up an interesting debate as to how goods are valued once exchange values have been suspended and what role food banks play in the contemporary U.S.

One possible hypothesis is that food banks are a “Polanyian counter-movement,” serving as protective ‘hubs’ to facilitate the embedding of the market in society. Lindenbaum dismisses this possibility, since food banks are not part of the formal state and are not involved in shaping practices of self-regulating food markets, which run independently and are largely unaffected by food banks. A second hypothesis is food banks are ‘neoliberal platoons’. This is the idea that food banks facilitate state withdrawal and advance neoliberal mantras. Lindenbaum also dismisses this argument, asserting that food banks operate beyond the realm of traditional supply and demand networks and do not promote market solutions, entrepreneurialism, and individualism.

John Lindenbaum comes to the conclusion that food banks should be considered to be ‘re-gifting depots’. As he explains, ‘food banks aim to ‘redirect’ products that are unwanted to people that need them, rather than any deep-seeded foundation in countering or advancing neoliberal markets’. Lindenbaum gives three major arguments to support the food bank re-gifting proposition. First, food banks involve primitive accumulation; they don’t involve capital profit, but can support capitalism by providing a ‘band-aid’ to society (by offering support to those living on diminishing incomes), as well as allowing for ‘charitable’ donations (that improve market image of corporations and offer tax benefits). Second, employing a disarticulations approach, goods and the labor of food bank clients are disconnected from their commodity chains. Finally, food banks are a means that deal with waste; instead of filling landfills they offer a redistribution service for unwanted goods and unwanted labor. All three of these viewpoints highlight how such exclusion is part of a seemingly permanent ‘state of emergency’ that is inherent in capitalist processes.

Lindenbaum’s CFAT presentation provided intriguing insights into how goods are valued beyond their commodification process and fueled a fruitful discussion with seminar participants. The ‘Re-gifting depot’ concept illuminates how the decommodification process ascribes a new set of values to the ex-commodity. Values such as labor, time, and branding all take on new subjective meaning within this process and as this presentation demonstrated, John Lindenbaum’s research provides a fascinating avenue to unpack these complexities.