A Crisis-Within-A-Crisis: Food Insecurity in the Era of COVID-19
By Juliet Fang, University High School, Fresno, CA, USA
In 2019, five million children in the United States did not know if they would receive fresh food and a warm shelter during the holidays. According to the Brookings Institute, this number has increased to more than 13.9 million children in 2020. The short answer for the drastic rise in food insecurity?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as the lack of consistent access to sufficient food for a healthy life. The concern of increased food insecurity lies in its ties to other factors, such as chronic or acute health problems, inadequate housing, and lower socioeconomic status — structural determinants of health that govern the lives of low-income families worldwide. COVID-19 has exacerbated these disparities. The United Nations World Food Program estimated that 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, which is double the number from last year.
Rates of food insecurity are intrinsically tied to a host state’s economy. So, when COVID-19 sucker-punched the economy everywhere, it withdrew incomes, shocked domestic food supply chains, raised food prices, and ultimately elevated food insecurity globally to tremendous new levels. Demand for goods dramatically increased as individuals stockpiled food to prepare for the worst. Countries found themselves pulled in every direction, scrambling to help both lower and middle classes survive.
In March 2020 in the United States, new guidelines for proper food management and processing were pushed out by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, causing a major rift in the agricultural industry. Food producers and facilities alike were unable to adapt quickly to the new regulations. With more Americans cooking at home and depending on grocery stores, the difference between available supply and demand generated soaring prices for common products. From April to May, egg prices rose 16.1% and fresh produce and canned vegetables rose 1.5% and 3.6%, respectively (Goldman, 2020). Coupled with 14 million Americans placed on the sidelines of work in February, elevated levels of food insecurity took the form of miles-long lines at strained food banks (Kochar, 2020).
However, the rise in food prices is bilateral between producers and consumers. While food supply chains lagged, consumers took to grocery stores to buy supplies in bulk, which quickly cleared shelves and depleted supplies. Mass panic and herd mentality is largely responsible. But stockpiling isn’t just psychological, it directly undermines individuals without the economic ability to buy fresh food in the first place (Kinsey et al., 2020).
Fortunately, increased awareness about food insecurity has created positive changes in consumer behavior across the globe. In Italy, consumers have reformed spending habits to accommodate affected supply chains. Up to 80% of Italian consumers have decreased discretionary spending and 76% have limited shopping altogether (Catena & Longo, 2020). A similar survey done in the Middle East has reported similar reduced expenditure rates among Middle Eastern consumers (PWC, 2020). Still, demand for essential products is high, and major exporters such as India and Cambodia have instituted necessary agricultural trade restrictions for rice to cushion domestic industry (Reuters, 2020).
As the demand for food increases globally, migrant farmworkers have assumed an absolutely essential role in food production. These workers are among those that are hardest hit by the pandemic. Many face significant structural disadvantages that tie them into pre-existing poverty.
Globally, economic and food insecurities drive these essential workers to continually show up to work. A study by UC Davis researchers found that the majority of Hispanic, Californian farmworkers “understood the dangers of the virus” but were financially obligated to continue working. In an interview a farmworker stated, “It must be recognized that many people, since there is… a need for money, many will stop themselves from stopping” (Pinkerton & Riden, 2020). A “double jeopardy” blow to agriculture took place in Sub-Saharan Africa, where droughts and a devastating locust invasion have placed significant financial hardship on populations already vulnerable to poverty. (Ayanlade & Radeny, 2020). Millions of African agricultural workers and citizens face serious food insecurity as a result.
As countries navigate the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have taken charge to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, focusing greatly on food insecurity. The World Bank Group, for example, is closely monitoring domestic food supply chains, and financing many projects in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Kenya to ensure people get fed. Consumers play an equally vital role. Unnecessary overconsumption and food stockpiling must cease. Donations can be made to Feeding America with a click of a button. Volunteers are needed at strained food banks. Community contribution, more than ever, is of utmost importance to help those in need. If there is anything that this pandemic has taught us, it’s that we’re in this together — for the long haul.
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