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The image of empty shelves in produce aisles has become commonplace during the Covid-19 crisis, while food banks are hustling to meet a growing demand for food assistance. These barren shelves and overwhelmed pantries suggest a country in famine. But the fact is that we are simultaneously wasting food en masse — plowing produce back into farm fields, dumping milk into lagoons, and watching perishables expire in warehouses.
The illogic of simultaneous food insecurity and food waste is clear enough to anyone. That we wrestle with these problems nonetheless speaks to the structural inequity behind unequal access to all resources, including food. The coronavirus adds fuel to the fire, illuminating the cracks in our clunky multinational food system.
Food waste has shot up as the sudden loss of large scale buyers like hotels, restaurants, and schools has left farmers and bulk distributors stranded with products they cannot sell. At their scale, they cannot reconfigure their bulk operations to match small grocery store portions, and often the cheapest solution is to simply dump their product, or return it to the field. Growing food and raising livestock are lengthy processes measured on the order of seasons. Farmers are already plowing their harvest back into their fields and planting another crop. These farmers operate on a hope that by harvest time they will have a market for their produce. But the current pandemic makes clear that our food system is optimized for production output, not resilience.
Meanwhile, food insecurity surges as Americans lose work and compete for limited food supplies at grocery stores. For those who were already food insecure to begin with, barriers to food access like grocery store disinvestment and food apartheid get compounded by new travel limitations and lost income. Financial insecurity begets food insecurity, and growing financial fragility has pushed many Americans to visit their local food bank for the first time, where they wait in mile-long lines.
Across the board, the coronavirus exacerbates and exposes existing inequities: Black Americans are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 in cities across the country. Access to protection is a luxury and marginalized groups face the most risk in this crisis. Food insecurity is just one piece of broader social precarity.
Neither food waste nor food insecurity is novel. The organization I work for, Food Shift, an Earth Island Project, has worked in the Bay Area for eight years to address these problems through a joint food recovery operation and social enterprise kitchen, which trains and hires individuals who face high barriers to employment. We have found that food is often discarded in bulk simply for having been stickered incorrectly or because it is surplus. Small cosmetic imperfections can also trigger a trip to the landfill. It is often easier and cheaper to discard excess food than to donate it. Last year alone we recovered over 120,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste.We don’t operate alone. Larger operations, like San Francisco based Imperfect Foods, have diverted far more.
During this pandemic, our country’s industrial food system has proven too inflexible to pivot to meet people’s immediate needs. Instead, nimble local agencies and grassroots organizers have stepped up. According to Feeding America, food banks across the country have seen a 40 percent increase in demand on average. In the Bay Area, the Alameda Food Bank is serving a record number of local residents. In response to Covid-19, food recovery organizations have kicked food recovery operations into high gear.
At Food Shift, we have pivoted to focus solely on the gaps where regular food supply chains have been interrupted. We have been recovering excess produce from wholesalers to supply frontline food assistance organizations that are serving about 8,600 people in the California Bay Area who are experiencing food insecurity, including unhoused, elderly, and immunocompromised people.
Similarly, our community partners like Alameda Point Collaborative, East Oakland Collective, Youth Employment Partnership, CityTeam, and Iglesia De Dios Evangelio Completo have all doubled down on distribution of food and essential supplies.
Born out of need, new localized food networks are emerging. Farmers who have lost restaurant clients are connecting to local households through grassroots CSA networks, and Michelin starred restaurants are turning into meal production centers for frontline healthcare workers. Since the start of the pandemic, Google Trends, which tracks Google searches, has seen a spike in the search terms “grow vegetables” and “mutual aid.” This crisis has pushed people across the country to recognize the need for a more resilient and inclusive food system and begin imagining one.
It might seem as though food insecurity is simply a problem of distribution — that if we could only optimize the logistics of connecting excess food to hungry people, we could end hunger. However, models like food banks and soup kitchens are not designed to tackle the root causes of hunger. These services alleviate hunger in the short term but possess no mechanism to ward off food insecurity in the long term, which would require shifting structural power imbalances.
Yes, right now we need to focus on providing immediate and urgent food assistance through food banks and soup kitchens. But long term, we need to push for longer-lasting relief that only racial and economic justice can provide.
There are some legislative measures the federal government can take. For instance, we need to guarantee paid sick leave for food chain workers and invest in food assistance rather than purge food stamp rolls. However, food insecurity is ultimately a local problem. People who are marginalized are not visible at a national level, but they are people we know in our neighborhoods and who line up at our food banks. We need a federal funding scheme to support local agencies with direct insight into community needs.
In this unprecedented moment, more people than ever are experiencing food insecurity. While those who already faced food insecurity are being plunged into even deeper precarity, countless more are — perhaps for the first time — feeling anxious and uncertain about limits on the quantity, nutrition, and variety of food they can access, and the logistics of procuring it.
Being unable to count on essential services and supplies offers those of us who are privileged a glimpse into the lives of those who face social and economic insecurity on a daily basis. The best thing we can do with this experience is employ our insight to devise appropriate solutions. We must resist a return to normal and use this moment as a catalyst to build a better, more inclusive safety net to hold us all. There is opportunity available to us in this crisis, if we are willing to see it.