Contributing Author: Jared Kaufman
After the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t go back to normal. Normal was a broken food system that left vulnerable communities behind and hurt our natural biodiverse ecosystems.
How do we rebuild a food system that’s truly regenerative and restorative? How do we create systems that are not just diverse but truly inclusive? How do we feed a growing population without sacrificing our fragile planet?
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been hosting Food Talk Live conversations twice daily, and I’ve spoken with countless farmers, chefs, journalists, scientists, entrepreneurs, sustainable business leaders, and other food system stakeholders. From these conversations, I’ve realized we need to blend technology with traditional wisdom, make the invisible visible, recognize the power of food as medicine, and use both our forks and our ballots to vote for a healthier food system.
In the journal Agriculture and Human Values, over 80 inspiring researchers and advocates share their own insights into how COVID-19 has impacted the food system and how we move forward. The essay collection, which Food Tank was honored to help organize along with many other brilliant folks, is available for everyone to read for free.
Food Tank is highlighting some of the articles from this series that pave the way toward a more equitable and sustainable post-COVID food system.
1. Alison Hope Alkon, Sarah Bowen, Yuki Kato, and Kara Alexis Young, food justice and equity scholars, on unequal vulnerability to COVID
“While stark racial health disparities predate COVID-19, if we continue to turn a blind eye to the classism and racism embedded within our food system, these disparities will inevitably widen as this pandemic weaves its way through the population,” write Alison Hope Alkon, Sarah Bowen, Yuki Kato, and Kara Alexis Young. They analyze the racial disparities in COVID-19 vulnerability through a food justice framework, noting that diet-related risk factors for the disease are not the result of a person’s individual choices but rather the racial capitalist structures that constrain a person’s food access.
2. Ana Moragues-Faus, political economist of food, on building distributive food economies
Spain was hit hard and early by COVID-19, and national responses reinforced a monolithic and industrial version of the modern food system. But communities challenged this with distributive food practices such as mutual aid programs, interconnected webs of relationships within the food system, and local agroecology, according to Ana Moragues-Faus, a professor of the political economy of food at Universitat de Barcelona in Spain. The pandemic represents and opportunity to nurture and invest in distributive food economies, she argues.
3. Bill McKibben, climate change scientist, on playing by nature’s rules
Farmers inherently understand the need to pay attention to nature, environmentalist and Middlebury College professor Bill McKibben writes. But most of us have lost touch with the fickleness of a world we can’t control. We can wish things were different all we want, he says, but this only delays our action and allows the problem to get worse—whether COVID-19 or climate change. “As it turns out, you can’t spin a virus, you can’t talk it down, you can’t force it to compromise or negotiate,” he writes. “Biology sets limits and we have to respect them, not the other way around.”
4. Edie Mukiibi of Slow Food International on food security in Africa
While African countries are enacting restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19, the impact of the pandemic on people’s ability to access food has been an afterthought, writes Edie Mukiibi, the vice president of Slow Food International and executive director of Slow Food Uganda. This is particularly pronounced in urban areas, where shortages and skyrocketing prices are significant barriers. “For Africa to handle the emerging and post COVID-19 food security crisis, we need to strategically focus on giving the necessary support and facilities to communities of producers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous people and other key grassroot players in the food system,” he writes.
5. Elizabeth Hoover, Indigenous foodways scholar, on Native nations’ responses to the pandemic
Indigenous nations around the U.S. have struggled with food insecurity for years, and often don’t receive policy help they need, writes Brown University professor Elizabeth Hoover. In this essay, Hoover highlights steps Native leaders around the country are taking to help their communities—creating educational programs, pushing for support for local food networks, building local seed sovereignty, and more.
6. Elizabeth Mpofu, general coordinator of Via Campesina, on how globalization leaves peasant farmers behind
“Peasant food systems are crucial to building defence against crises,” writes Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean organic farmer and the general coordinator of Via Campesina, a global organization of peasant farmers. Mpofu writes that Via Campesina is fighting for a food system that’s more harmonious with nature and stands up for the right to food sovereignty for peasant farmers.
7. Gary Paul Nabhan, ethnobotanist and seed saving advocate, on how COVID will change crops
After the pandemic, “the food we eat will neither look nor taste the same as what we are eating today,” writes Gary Paul Nabhan, the co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH. Why? Because, he says, the breakdown of our siloed food system will lead us to develop agricultural landscapes with a greater diversity of soil microbes and plant species. People will grow more of their own food and get used to eating produce that looks imperfect. And as we grow foods on our own fertile soil with our own seeds, Nabhan says, we’ll learn what seasonal crops are actually supposed to taste like.
8. Jeff Moyer, CEO of The Rodale Institute, on how soil health equals human health
In 1942, Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale said, “Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People.” This is as true now as ever, Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer writes. The Rodale Institute works to build regenerative, organic farming methods that revitalize the soil, which Moyer says has been neglected by conventional agriculture. “With a goal of human health starting with the soil, together we will achieve a future that prioritizes health as the primary metric of agricultural success,” he writes.
9. Julian Aygeman and Alexandra Duprey, urban food justice scholars, on protecting undocumented immigrants during COVID
Sanctuary cities are urban areas that have committed to protecting undocumented immigrants from federal deportation or prosecution. But what are sanctuary cities doing to protect undocumented immigrants from the pandemic? Not enough, argue Julian Agyeman and Alexandra Duprey, faculty in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. “Immigrant communities are generally facing compounding trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic,” they write. They offer concrete steps cities can take to address this.
10. Leah Penniman, Black farmer and food sovereignty advocate, on how food can be liberation
“This nation has relied upon the labor, expertise, and resources of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities to undergird the food system since its inception,” writes Leah Penniman, the founder of Soul Fire Farm. This means the industrialized food system is steeped in racism, injustice, and unequal access to resources and opportunities. By land redistribution, mutual aid, and dignified food access, Black and Indigenous communities can free themselves from what Penniman calls the system of food apartheid.
11. Mary Hendrickson, rural food systems researcher, on the dangers of agribusiness consolidation
Power in the agri-food system is concentrated in the hands of a few global companies like Bayer and Cargill—and the pandemic has exposed how brittle such a centralized, non-diversified system is, says University of Missouri rural sociologist Mary Hendrickson. “Our only hope is that the precarity of the system, its potential losing of its core identity as a for-profit food system based on efficiency, specialization, standardization and centralization, will allow transition to a decentralized, diverse, and interconnected food system that can feed all of us now and in the future,” she writes.
12. Patrick Holden, farmer and sustainability advocate, on a healthier local food economy
“Health is not merely the absence of disease but rather a vital state when an organism, plant, animal or human, is living in a dynamic balance with its external environment,” writes Patrick Holden, a farmer in Wales and the founder of Sustainable Food Trust. He argues a better nourished population, with a more sustainable food system, could have been better equipped to battle COVID-19. The light at the end of the tunnel, he writes, is that “local food systems offer increased food security at a time of serious existential threats.”