The Coronavirus Reveals The 'Invisible Inequalities' In Our Food System

Professor Marion Nestle offers a sobering assessment: "That the food system is failing is a given."

Americans are worried about food, many for the first time in their lives. While the U.S. government has said there are no nationwide shortages, that hasn’t stopped panic buying in supermarkets as coronavirus cases continue to tick upward.

Yet the most immediate crisis ― according to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University ― is not the availability of food, but its affordability to the tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs and income. Experts are already warning the coronavirus pandemic will make inequality worse in the United States, with reports of mothers skipping meals to feed their children.

Nestle spoke to HuffPost about what the pandemic reveals about our broken food system, and her hopes for a political awakening once the COVID-19 crisis ends.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been collecting evidence on the impact of the coronavirus on food. What stands out so far for you?

Every single part of the food system is affected by [the pandemic], starting from production and where we are going to get people to harvest food if they’re not allowed to be near each other or come into the country.

And then transportation and distribution. Who’s doing the home delivering? And how are the people working in stores staying safe and stopping themselves from infecting others if they have the virus?

Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Marion Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
Bill Hayes

We’re seeing the shelves empty of certain kinds of products ― that’s going to increase as people are still hoarding food and it’s difficult for the stores to keep up with the demand. Restaurants are closed and going out of business and leaving staff unemployed.

There is this enormous demand for home cooking, for raw ingredients, for yeast for bread, and for gardening supplies. The seed catalog companies can’t keep up with the demand as all of a sudden everyone wants to do home cooking and gardening.

Do you think the pandemic has shown that our food system is failing?

That the food system is failing is a given: Witness hunger and food insecurity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, and gross inequalities among people involved in food production and consumption.

Coronavirus reveals these usually invisible inequalities.

What I hope will come out of this [crisis] is a system that pays farmworkers, packinghouse workers and restaurant workers more fairly. There is already a lot of worker unrest as the burden of food system work has fallen on the people who are paid the least.

Do you think that fears of food shortages are justified?

There is certainly no lack of food yet, and the food industry is continually reassuring the public that there is plenty of food around. It’s not like the situation with face masks or ventilators or pieces of essential medical equipment. But people are afraid the food supply will run out. There’s not a lot of trust in it.

There are two aspects to preventing food shortages. There has to be supply, and there has to be money to buy it. I’m most worried about the lack of money to buy it at the moment.

But until we start seeing real shortages of things people don’t feel they can do without ― and I don’t know whether that is going to be coffee, chocolate or something more nutritionally useful ― until that happens, I don’t think food is going to get the kind of traction [with politicians and decision-makers] it needs.

My number one worry is, what are people without money or who have lost jobs going to do? Or the restaurants that have had to close or fire their employees and are having to figure out how to repurpose themselves into something that can make money? The number one problem in America when it comes to food is having enough for the people who do not have the resources to get it.

Do you think the pandemic is pushing food up the political agenda? And will we see more focus on it in the upcoming presidential campaign?

I can’t say I am seeing much evidence of change yet. Some of the decisions, like closing the schools, put millions of American children at risk of not having enough food to eat, because the school meals were their major source of calories during the day. So what happens to those kids?

What happens to all of the people on the SNAP program [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] who, because of the policies of this administration, were forced off the roll and are now trying to get back on them? Or what about immigrants who have been told [that] if they use food assistance or welfare programs, they will be ineligible for citizenship?

“For people who have money, it is impossible to understand what it is like not to have enough to buy food.”

- Marion Nestle

The anti-hunger community is trying to rally as much support as it can on these issues, but it is not a political problem that gets much traction. People can’t even get on the streets to demonstrate or protest on this. People who are wealthy are going to ride this out just fine. It’s everyone else that I worry about.

I think that for people who have money, it is impossible to understand what it is like not to have enough to buy food. Or to have to choose between rent and food. It’s impossible for them to empathize.

“Poor” is seen as a matter of choice, not as a result of bad circumstances or being born into a poor family. At least coronavirus makes it clear why people are in trouble today. If any good comes out of that, it’s that poverty is the result of circumstances, not choice. And not laziness. The failures of the food system are looming large.

What hopes do you have for the future once we come out of this crisis?

The most hopeful aspect of this terrible crisis is that it will focus attention on the food system and the inequities that make it so difficult for people to buy the food they need, and will make it easier in the future for people to realize how important this is, so that they will appreciate why workers in the food system need to be paid better.

I would be very surprised if there was a shift away from a globalized food system, though. And the reason for that is because the driver of the current system is food costs. As long as keeping food costs low is the primary driver, then it won’t change. Everyone is going to look for the cheapest labor, the cheapest cost.

The most ridiculous examples are that we export chicken to China to be processed into chicken fingers and products, or that we use 40% of the corn grown in the U.S. to produce fuel for cars. That’s another thing I can’t get my head around.

I’m hoping at the end of this, some of these really bizarre anomalies will change and people will understand that we need to have a food system that protects human health and protects environmental health. There’s been lots of pleas for that over the years, and if this crisis does anything to promote that, it will have done some good. Let’s hope!

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