Columnist Claire Morenon: What sort of food system do we want, when the COVID crisis is over?

Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 29, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over — by many metrics, it’s the worst it’s ever been. Still, the vaccine brings some promise that, by the end of this newly minted year, the pandemic may be quelled and our lives may return to some version of normal.

January always brings an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and to look ahead to the promise and hope of the new year, and this is more important than ever as we consider what “returning to normal” might mean: what are the old ways of doing things that we shouldn’t carry forward, and what should we bring with us into the future?

The pandemic brought previously hidden realities about our food system into the light: our utter reliance on essential food system workers, the number of people in our community who live one lost paycheck away from hunger, and the brittle design of our industrial food system.

It also showed the immense positive impact that grassroots efforts, community work, and robust state support can have.

Early in the pandemic, the previously simple task of getting groceries and feeding ourselves felt suddenly fraught and complicated for many of us. Farmers, farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, food packers and distributors, grocery store workers, and delivery drivers kept working to keep all of us fed, while risking their own health and safety to do so. Many of these jobs are among the lowest paid and least secure, and many are filled by undocumented workers with no path yet towards legal residency or citizenship — realities that are completely out of step with the crucial role that these workers play in our society.

People rightly cheered and banged pots to celebrate health care workers last year, and food system workers deserve recognition for their heroism during this pandemic too. When we leave this crisis behind, will we continue to base our food system on an undervalued and disenfranchised workforce, when we can no longer deny our abject reliance on their labor?

The financial impacts of the pandemic have been devastating, and hunger has spiked around the country. Feeding America has projected that COVID-19 will increase hunger rates in Massachusetts by 59% — the biggest increase in the country. That means that hunger is estimated to affect 14.2% of the state, or over 978,000 people.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, direct service agencies, funders, school districts, community advocates, and countless other people and agencies have responded to this crisis with new partnerships and resources to fill the gap.

Farmers, too, have been important partners in anti-hunger efforts, from donating produce to participating in new programs like the USDA Farmers to Families program. These enormous efforts have been life-saving, but still: the staggering increase in hunger shows us how many people in our communities were living right on the edge of financial ruin before the pandemic hit. Will we continue to accept a system in that would allow 20% of children in our state to go hungry?

COVID-19 also exposed the fragility of our industrial food system, typified by the meat industry, where devastating COVID-19 outbreaks in massive midwestern meat processing plants led to plant closures last spring. This was a disaster with immeasurable human costs for workers and potentially catastrophic effects on our nation’s food supply — in the end, meat prices spiked and millions of overgrown pigs had to be euthanized.

The extreme concentration of our industrial food system doesn’t allow for slow-downs, flexibility, or quick adaptation to unexpected challenges — unlike the local farms that flexed immediately to keep providing food to our communities. Will we continue to prioritize industrial efficiency and low food prices over worker health and safety, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and real food security?

While the pandemic pulled back the curtain on these complex challenges, it certainly hasn’t made it any simpler to address them. There are some hopeful indicators over the past year: organizing among essential workers, responsive and effective anti-hunger efforts, and increased demand for food from small local farms.

If the pandemic has brought any of these issues into new clarity for you, or helped to crystallize your values, this is a good time to commit to continuing to advocate for and work toward deeper, ongoing change when the crisis has passed. Real change requires engagement, creativity, and hard work on the local level, while also pushing to change the rules of the game at the state and national levels. At CISA, we’re committed to this fight — we hope you’ll join us.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).