As COVID-19 swept across the globe, hospitals were pushed to their breaking points, unemployment rose, uncertainty gripped millions, and food insecurity in the United States climbed to its highest rate since the Great Depression. Where were the safety nets to prevent millions from going hungry? Where were the widespread programs that ensured children out of school would receive adequate nutritious meals? While organizations scrambled to fill some of the gaps and the government handed out relief packages, we have to ask ourselves why does it require a pandemic to realize just how fragile our food systems have become?
Hundreds of Millions Face Food Uncertainty
Food insecurity is nothing new for the estimated 35 million people, of which included 11 million children, in the United States in 2019 who wondered where their next meal would come from. For years the number of people requiring food assistance was declining, but COVID-19 changed the landscape. Today there are an estimated 42 million people (13 million children) who are likely to face food uncertainty in 2021 in the United States. Worldwide the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) approximates that number sits between 720 and 811 million people. That’s more than twice the population of the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Contributors include transportation, income, unemployment, poverty, disability, age, ethnicity, distance, and quality of food available, among many others. Globally, contributors also include food shortages, war, and conflict, climate change, and the economy. Arguably a common thread is poor public policy which is all too often viewed through the lens of individual responsibility.
Public Policy Over Individual Responsibility
In 1997, after attempting to break into a church because he was in search of food, Gregory Taylor was sentenced to 25 years to life under California’s three-strike rule. In 2010 the sentence was amended by a Superior Court judge to time served, and Taylor was set free. Taylor’s story isn’t unique. Documented arrests and sentences exist throughout the world and highlight the inadequate public policies in place to ensure individuals can feed their families, opting instead to punish the individual.
The uncomfortable truth is that we think enough is being done. The narrative often goes — individuals who find themselves food insecure either do so because they have fallen on “temporary” bad times which they should have planned for or because they just weren’t making good decisions. But if you want to be able to make better food choices, to have food and nutrient security, then social safety nets need to address the root problems, not the symptoms.
In April and May 2020, more than 1 million Texans lost their jobs due to COVID-19 shutdowns. One of the larger food banks, San Antonio, was accustomed to providing food for 60,000 people but almost overnight as thousands lost their jobs they had to adjust and started to provide food for some 120,000 people. Individuals would line up in their cars the day before the food bank opened, afraid there wouldn’t be enough food. Their stories are harrowing but yet again begs the question why weren’t any policies put in place to prevent this outcome?
Food Security & Climate Change
By taking a more globalized look at the issues at play, we see just how complex and fragile our food systems truly are. Globally, a very large proportion of the population produces food on small plots of land, and they rely on rainfall for crops and animals. These are the same populations that are most impacted by food insecurity but will also feel some of the harshest effects of climate change — mostly in Africa and South Asia.
According to the “United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), at least 80 percent of the world’s hungry people live in places prone to natural disasters and environmental degradation, including many of the world’s poorest places.” In countries where agriculture makes up a large portion of the gross domestic product, and agricultural employment can reach as high as 80%, the problems compound. Food insecurity worsens with each degree of warming, but agriculture itself is a major contributor.
The IPCC report on climate change and land estimates 21–37% of total greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to global food systems. This includes land use, deforestation, packaging, processing, crop and livestock activities, consumption, and transport, among others. Transitioning to a mostly plant-based diet might sound like an obvious step, but for subsistence farmers without major systems, change is insurmountably difficult.
In wealthier countries, such as the United States, where a majority of the country is not involved in agricultural production, and technological advancements are widely implemented, it appears we aren’t fairing all that much better even though the symptoms look different. With 42 million facing food insecurity and millions more likely with the changing environment, access and price are important.
Around 19 million Americans live in a food desert where their only source of food may be fast food. And while plant-based alternatives are becoming more readily available at such places, it’s still not a healthy choice. This, in turn, leads to worsening health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Obesity alone led to around $147 billion related medical care costs in 2008, according to the CDC.
Frustrations continue to mount as animal rights organizations, concerned scientists, and individuals understand a shift towards a plant-based diet is important for cutting emissions. Many have called for a severe reduction, if not the elimination of subsidies to the animal agriculture producers. Shifting them instead to farmers actively working on providing fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains with regenerative practices in mind.
According to Sentient Media, “As of April 2021, you can walk into a McDonald’s anywhere in the U.S. and buy a burger for $1. If buying wholesale, you can purchase chicken at $0.78 per pound and eggs at $0.80. The vegan alternatives to these products are far more expensive: Boca chicken patties come in at $4 a pound, and Just Eggs come in at $8.” The price disparity for healthier options comes at the cost of personal and planetary health.
Towards Better Food Systems
“If anything, this is a conspiracy of good intentions, convincing ourselves in circles that we are doing just enough not to require any uncomfortable action, replacing the terror of a gargantuan world with a feeling of control.”
To combat food insecurity, we must look towards a broken system, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient. Minimum wage needs to rise, green spaces installed, public transportation abundant, education on nutrition and agriculture mandatory in school, affordable childcare accessible, food sovereignty encouraged not legislated against, and food systems decentralized. If we want individuals to make the correct decisions, then they must be equipped with the proper tools. No one should be made to choose between rent payment or nutritious food. Doing so only creates a negative feedback loop that often prevents that individual from ever bringing about lasting change in their own lives.
When we look at the images of thousands of cars lined up at the San Antonio Food Bank, we are saddened but also thankful such organizations exist. But, would they need to if we made system changes? There will always be a need for emergency food services, but emergencies shouldn’t last months or even years.
Studies show us time and time again that food security leads to a net benefit for all — economic growth and job creation, improved health, increased security, and poverty reduction. Now more than ever, we need to change the narrative from individual responsibility and charity to a public policy necessary for the benefit of all. It’s time we stop talking about food security as something that affects just the individual and not the entire global community. As global temperatures continue to rise, we will need to come to this realization sooner rather than later and work towards creating a system that treats the problems, not the symptoms.