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From commodity surplus to food justice: food banks and local agriculture in the United States


Amidst expanding interest in local food and agriculture, food banks and allied organizations across the United States have increasingly engaged in diverse gleaning, gardening, and farming activities. Some of these programs reinforce food banks’ traditional role in distributing surplus commodities, and most extend food banks’ reliance on middle class volunteers and charitable donations. But some gleaning and especially gardening and farming programs seek to build poor people’s and communities’ capacity to meet more of their own food needs, signaling new roles for some food banks in promoting community food security and food justice. This article reports the results of a national survey and in-depth case studies of the ways in which food banks are engaging in and with local agriculture and how this influences food banks’ roles in community and regional food systems. The patterns it reveals reflect broader tensions in debates about hunger relief and food security.

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  1. 1.

    Food banks are nonprofit organizations designated by state governments to distribute federal and state food aid to food cupboards (also known as pantries and sometimes confusingly also called “food banks”), soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other emergency food and feeding organizations.

  2. 2.

    In general terms, gleaning refers to the collection of goods that their producers or resellers cannot or choose not to sell. It most commonly refers to the harvesting of crops from farmers’ fields, but also from gardens and other sites.

  3. 3.

    While this article presents a normative critique of this work, our separate report on this research, aimed largely at food bank staff and related practitioners, includes more detailed quantitative analysis as well as case studies of the programs we visited (Vitiello et al. 2013).

  4. 4.

    Community food security differs from food security partly in that (1) food security in the U.S. is measured at the household level, while community food security encompasses the larger scale of a community; and (2) community food security is viewed as a process of seeking these goals as well as an end-state.

  5. 5.

    We distinguish farms and gardens in this paper by whether the food bank calls a site a farm or garden. The main distinction between food banks’ farms and gardens is that most of the farming programs sell some of their harvest, often through farmers markets or mobile markets run by food bank youth or job training programs, whereas the great majority of the gardening programs do not sell their harvest.

  6. 6.

    Our citations of interviews aim to illustrate the prevalence of certain findings from those interviews, i.e., how many interviewees noted particular things.

  7. 7.

    Tax write-offs enable corporations and individuals to decrease the amount of taxes they pay to government.



Community-supported agriculture


Women, infants, and children


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The research for this paper was funded by a pilot grant from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI) and conducted in collaboration with the SHARE Food Program of Philadelphia. We wish to thank Steveanna Wynn at SHARE, Sheila Christopher at Hunger Free PA, Holly Beddome from the University of Manitoba, our colleagues in the CPHI, and especially the staff of food banks and partner organizations who hosted our site visits and interviews.

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Correspondence to Domenic Vitiello.

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Vitiello, D., Grisso, J.A., Whiteside, K.L. et al. From commodity surplus to food justice: food banks and local agriculture in the United States. Agric Hum Values 32, 419–430 (2015).

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  • Community food security
  • Food banks
  • Gleaning
  • Gardening
  • Farming