The US food system is broken. It is efficient, delivering abundant food calories and industrialized food choices. But medium- and small-size farmers are leaving rural areas, going out of business. Even in the best of times, more than 10 percent (and now more than 20 percent) of the US population reports lack of reliable access to nutritious, affordable food. Large numbers suffer hunger, unhealthy diets, high rates of obesity, and related chronic disease.
The COVID pandemic called attention to this brokenness
Pandemic-related disruptions to food supply chains, and devastating disease disproportionately afflicting indigenous and essential worker communities, brought attention to this brokenness.
National and local media helped increase awareness: urgent needs for water and food in Navajo Nation, dire conditions of essential immigrant labor picking crops or packing meat, and the collapse of the food service industry and related livelihoods.
Local businesses and neighbors, including in Boston and the BU community, responded generously and strategically by establishing community fridges and exchange tables for food, and grab-and-go free breakfast and lunch sites to replace school meals; restaurants pivoted to provide meals to the hungry; volunteers scaled up efforts to move donated food; and food pantries and soup kitchens networked through food banks struggling to meet the needs of increasing numbers of the hungry.
But to build back better, government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations across the private voluntary sector will have to find additional ways to ensure that everyone can eat nutritious food now and in the future.
Some bold and unifying actions for a 2021 food plan
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledges the challenges of ensuring that food production and distribution systems, designed for efficiency, are more resilient and that abundant low-cost food is more aligned with nutrition goals.
Workable solutions will require forging partnerships with state, county, and municipal governments, the business sector, and private voluntary and community organizations, as well as universities and think tanks, spanning agricultural, sustainability, nutrition security, and food justice areas of interest.
Agricultural approaches might explore farmer-led paths to crop diversification, regenerative land-use practices, and healthy (in some cases, niche crop) food enterprises, along the lines demonstrated by
Lentil Underground, a project that helped farmers transition out of high chemical and energy input wheat, corn, and soy, and into soil restoring legumes and heritage grains.
Food justice initiatives can inform the public how people of color were illegally and unfairly excluded from participation in earlier agricultural grants programs, so these deprivations cannot be repeated.
Nutrition policymakers, while continuing to strengthen and expand SNAP benefits as long as the COVID-related economic downturn persists, can also explore and pilot nutrition components that might make government programs, including SNAP benefits, encourage healthier eating and outcomes.
Embracing adequate food as a human right
The 2020s are a crucial decade for everyone to take stock, gain strength by joining with others, and take local and global action for the health of the planet and humanity. As activists like the
Diet for a Small Planet and Food First author, and Small Planet Foundation founder Frances Moore Lappe have tirelessly emphasized: food and democracy go hand in hand. Justice and human rights advocates across a wide spectrum can again use food as a focus for unifying and supporting everyone’s claims for health and well-being.
Ellen Messer is an instructor in the Metropolitan College Gastronomy Program. Close