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Volunteer at a Food Bank.

Food System Breakdowns and the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • A crisis has been devastating the nation, but not just the predominant one of 2020. Hunger and food insecurity have long been rampant across the country but have gone surprisingly unnoticed—that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic further exposed just how flawed the food system is despite how dependent consumers are on the smooth operation of that very system. In the latest installment of the MCPHS COVID-19 webinar series, Revisioning the New Normal, Dr. Mary Potorti, Assistant Professor of Politics and Social Sciences at MCPHS, explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated breakdowns within the U.S. food system.

    Dr. Potorti introduced her presentation with the notion of food politics, which is also the subject of a course she has revised three times since the pandemic outbreak. Dr. Potorti described the food system as dominated by the industrial model and shaped by federal food policies. Because of the fragility of the food system, the surge of coronavirus cases has disrupted its operation. She explained, “As the pandemic has revealed both locally and globally, a weak or broken link, or dysfunctional policy, upsets the functionality of the whole system.”

    Dr. Potorti discussed five areas of the food system that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended, the first being the underlying realities of food injustice. Expounding on the discrimination of the food system itself, she explained how members of society are affected by imbalanced stakes dependent on region, occupation, race, etc. For example, communities of color are disproportionately affected by issues of food access, more often living in food deserts (areas far from grocery stores) and food swamps (areas saturated with fast-food chains and convenience stores). For society to attain food justice, there must be equitable access to nutritious food for all individuals to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

    Another pandemic-driven disruption has been the breakdown of the commodity chain, or the path of food products from farm to table. This breakdown was most visible during the early months of the pandemic due to the panic-buying or hoarding by consumers fearful of future food shortages or being exposed to the virus while frequenting supermarkets. During those early months, many grocery stores ran out of stock of certain items, while the opposite issue occurred in institutional settings, such as restaurants and schools that had to abruptly shut down. Meanwhile, massive amounts of food were wasted because of the bifurcation of our food system, which channels about half of the country’s produced food to grocery stores and the other half to institutional settings. In essence, because of flaws in the commodity chain, food has simultaneously been short in some areas and wasted in others.

    The pandemic has also caused high rates of job loss among food service workers due to restaurant closures. Similarly, there have been high rates of exposure, illness, and death among food production workers such as meatpackers and agricultural workers. Both of these consequences have disproportionately affected people of color, people with lower levels of education, and people who are undocumented. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, workers in these types of jobs were already economically and socially marginalized and exposed to greater risks of injury and sickness because of their work environments. According to Dr. Potorti, “Meatpacking is considered by OSHA to be the most dangerous occupation in the country.” On top of all those hazards, the work came to be considered essential during the pandemic. While other offices and types of businesses shut down or reduced their capacity, meatpacking facilities remained open, sometimes at higher capacity due to the previous administration’s use of wartime production measures. These drastic measures forced meatpackers to go to work, in some cases even if they had been exposed to the virus. This kind of dehumanization is an extreme example of the injustice that food production workers face, especially jarring at a time when their contributions are considered critical. As Dr. Potorti put it, “We need to treat essential workers like they are essential.”

    On the flipside of food production, food consumption has also been upset by COVID-19. The pandemic has led to a rapid rise in food insecurity, especially among families with children, because of school closures. Prior to their closures, schools were a huge source of nutrition and increased food security to children of low-income households. In mid-January, The Washington Post estimated that 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, were currently food insecure. This is a dramatic jump from the 35 million reported by NPR to have been food insecure at any point in 2019, and far more people than the 38 million currently receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps). COVID-19 has also resulted in fewer people volunteering at food banks and grocery stores having fewer overstock items to donate. Even in ordinary times, it is important to remember that food charity does not mean food security. Aside from the ongoing need to educate the public about SNAP (many people do not realize they qualify for food assistance), federal food aid programs in place are not adequate, either in terms of who qualifies for assistance or in the size of the benefit, to help families attain food security on their own.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility and injustice of the U.S. food system and forced a spotlight on it that cannot be ignored. As a result, the government has begun to take steps in the right direction. A notable way in which the previous administration attempted to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on food-insecure families was the initiation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18th, 2020. This act instituted the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which channeled $19 billion into the food industry. Most of this money was used to recoup economic losses, but $3 billion was used to bring food that would otherwise go to waste to people who needed it. Another positive change was made by the new administration on January 22nd, 2021 when President Biden signed an executive order requesting the United States Department of Agriculture to permit states to increase SNAP benefits and P-EBT benefits (additional cash assistance to offset the loss of free or discounted school meals) to low-income families with children by 15 percent. In another promising symbol of change, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff have also signaled a commitment to programs promoting food security. Summarizing the policy recommendations of an array of scholars and advocacy groups, Dr. Potorti concluded by offering six specific reforms necessary to advance food justice:

    • Invest in local food systems and divest (both at the individual and the governmental level) from big agricultural corporations
    • Dismantle the “hunger-industrial complex” that enables big corporations to pay low wages and then get tax breaks for donating to programs that subsidize their labor force
    • Raise wages, because hunger is essentially a poverty issue
    • Increase SNAP benefits and eligibility and allow recipients to use them to purchase prepared meals
    • Address systemic racism and issues of food access for communities of color
    • Dismantle policy silos, as food insecurity cannot be addressed in isolation from things like housing and childcare policies.

    Watch the full webinar, “Food System Breakdowns and the COVID-19 Pandemic". If you are an MCPHS student and experiencing food insecurities, please visit the food insecurity resources page