Stirrings, Lana Dee Povitz’s study of food activism in New York City in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, is an extraordinary achievement. At the core of the book are four rich and vivid case studies of food-focused organizing. It begins with the United Bronx Parents, an anti-poverty organization of largely African American and Puerto Rican parents who agitated to improve school lunches in the South Bronx and ended up helping to reform school lunch policy for the entire city. Next, Povitz looks at the development of the Park Slope Coop and its New Left activist roots. Then she moves on to God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that brought food and dignity to homebound sufferers of AIDS at the height of the pandemic, and finally, the Community Food Resource Center, a food-focused nonprofit that activists organized in the 1980s to fill the chasms of social need left behind by the Reagan-era assault on social services.
As I read avidly through these pages, I thought of Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, an epic 1995 study of Black freedom struggles in Mississippi in the classic Civil Rights era. Payne’s book was, as he described it, a look at “spadework” organizing. In contrast to the “big” events, personalities, and narratives, he looked at the nitty-gritty efforts of those women and men who labored to advance the movement on the ground within their own communities and contexts. While the focus may be different, Stirrings is similarly another soon-to-be classic “spadework” history.
The book is set against backdrops like the War on Poverty, New York City’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the haphazard and arrested development of a federal food assistance program, and the emergence of a larger and more robust nonprofit sector. But the power and dynamism of Stirrings comes from Povitz’s capture of the spadework moments where individuals made a larger movement for food justice real.
To name a few examples, Stirrings brings the reader to provocative face-to-face confrontations with city and state officials, hot street corners in neighborhoods like Hunts Point and Bedford Stuyvesant as bagged lunches for school students are handed out in summertime, cramped shared offices where ideas are hatched and hashed out and the mimeograph machine never stops rolling, up four flights of stairs to bring gourmet pasta to a dying man, to crews of women, men, and even a few children hauling bags and boxes of produce fresh from the wholesale markets. In all these moments Povitz highlights movements and organizations that were not leaderless but in fact leaderful and propelled by strong people. The book moves because of these moments. Such intimate, vivid, and humanizing realities, made possible by exhaustive oral history collection, draw the reader in like few other scholarly histories can. The result is personal and powerful. One often gets a sense of the energy and hard-to-describe yet simultaneously universal feeling of being part of something larger than yourself.
In terms of the larger scholarly landscape, Stirrings is first and foremost an important study of urban food justice and food policies in this time frame. As of now, there is no comparable study of any city’s food activism. There are many histories that include overviews of the influential breakfast program run by the Black Panther Party, which Povitz notes, but she moves the narrative forward in showing what came next in a place like New York. On a broader scale of postwar struggles for food and racial justice, the book complements Monica White’s (2019) history of Black freedom struggles and food justice and sovereignty in the South, Freedom Farmers. In this way the book gives us another invaluable look at the intersection of race, anti-hunger, and anti-poverty efforts.
Stirrings also provides us a lens through which to understand how, during the 1970s and ’80s, many activist energies became institutionalized within the growing world of nonprofits. In this way, Stirrings is another helpful demonstration, among many others, that this period was not one of civic or activist decline but rather of institution building to help achieve broader social aims. This kind of spadework history shows that activist energies and impulses evolved and adapted rather than disappeared.
Stirrings also illuminates one of the central thrusts of Janet Poppendieck’s still-relevant 1998 look at the development of the country’s inadequate emergency food system, Sweet Charity?, and echoed again in works like Andrew Fisher’s Big Hunger (2017). As Povitz compellingly argues, food is a unique vehicle for activism. As a tangible and existential need, it pulls on people’s desire to get involved in a visceral way, and often manages to transcend easy political categorization and polarization. As such, food-focused organizations can often draw on a wide array of individuals as volunteers, donors, and partners. That said, as Povitz argues, while this helps draw so many to these efforts, the question remains of why we are so willing to give time and resources to fight hunger instead of the poverty and other structural and systemic failings that cause it, and raises further questions on how that can happen, and why it often does not.
I found that the only “shortcoming” of Stirrings was that it was not longer. This is not to say that what Povitz has given us is incomplete or underdeveloped. Rather, the richness and depth of her work left me selfishly wanting another one, two, even three case studies. Methodically, stylistically, and academically, this book is a triumph. As such, it is a very worthwhile read, particularly for those who teach food activism, social movements, as well as philanthropic and nonprofit history.