Dissertation Title:
“It’s the Resources”: Work, Governance, and the Institutionalization of an Emergency Food Network

Dissertation Abstract:
Thousands of loosely connected organizations such as food pantries and soup kitchens constitute the emergency food network. Organizations in this network provide a critical source of food to millions of households each year. This dissertation examines how organizations in one city-level emergency food network acquire, manage, and use resources. It pays particular attention to the relationships that develop between organizations and funding sources.

Utilizing institutional ethnography, this dissertation explicates the ways that everyday food provision in food pantries and soup kitchens is connected to a broader picture of changing modes of governance in the public and nonprofit sectors. The data were collected in Syracuse, New York, primarily using in-depth interviewing. Thirty interviews were conducted with staff and volunteers at food pantries and soup kitchens and fourteen interviews were conducted with staff of agencies connected to food pantries and soup kitchens through funding relationships.

The emergency food network arose primarily to address gaps created by structural inequality and the inadequate government social safety net in the United States. Despite the enormous amount of labor that is dedicated to operating organizations within the emergency food network, this dissertation further supports other scholars’ critiques of the network as inadequate. The context in which the majority of the organizations in the network operate is a religious context—many of the volunteers in the network are committed to emergency food provision because of their religious beliefs. This religious context has implications for ground-level services as well as the overall institutionalization of the network.

The government provides a significant amount of support for the emergency food network, particularly in New York State. New York State’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program provides a relatively stable source of funding for Syracuse’s food pantries and soup kitchens. This support has helped to institutionalize the local network and bolster the relationship between the regional food bank, which administers the state funding, and its eligible member programs. Even with a relatively stable funding environment, however, workers in food pantries and soup kitchens have been forced to develop limiting mechanisms to help manage their finite resources. These limiting mechanisms restrict the ability of the network to function as an adequate, charitably-based safety net.

This dissertation also suggests that activities in the local network in which this study took place are becoming increasingly coordinated due to funding relationships, particularly with the regional food bank. Most of the approximately 70 food pantries and soup kitchens in Syracuse are “member programs” of the regional food bank, and as such, they agree to participate in a complex, but hierarchical relationship whereby the food bank guides, coordinates, and monitors much of the activity happening on the ground. While much of this coordination has sought to improve local services, this complex network is still failing to serve as an adequate response to hunger and food insecurity.

Link to Dissertation on SUrface

Comprehensive Exam Areas:

  • Qualitative Methods with a focus on Feminist Methodologies and Institutional Ethnography
  • Hunger in the U.S. Context
  • Organizational Sociology

Future Research:

My broader research interests are situated at the intersection of food, inequality, and social justice. I plan to expand my dissertation research with an analysis of food banking at the national level.


At the Regional Market in Syracuse, NY
At the Regional Market in Syracuse, NY