The US food system creates hunger and debt – but there is another way

Ťhe Covid-19 pandemic has not only been a public health crisis, it has also been a hunger crisis. When millions of Americans lost their jobs, they no longer had enough money to feed themselves and their families. Hunger predictably struck people who were already marginalized. As was evidenced by long lines at food banks, it also struck middle-class families and exacerbated inequality. Even with vaccines, people continue getting weak and sick during the pandemic and the burden is disproportionately landing on women to work harder to ensure everyone stays healthy and alive.

To add injury upon injury, parts of the food system are also a public health hazard. 例如, meatpacking plants in the US and around the world have fostered the pandemic, spreading the virus to nearby communities due to poor working conditions and environmental abuses.

These patterns aren’t new since the food system has been unjust for most people for generations. Any hope for justice for all in the United States must address people’s food needs and the food system.

Communities in the US and all over the world are building powerful right-to-food campaigns demanding that their food be adequate, available and accessible.

The right to food is different from a system of charity. Because charities rely on their donors, they are rarely able address the root causes of the problem. Often the donors are part of the problem, creating a conflict of interest.

The reason that the right to food can empower people is because it is more than the right to be free from hunger.

The source of the right to food, and all human rights, is the fact that everyone holds an inherent dignity simply because they are alive. Therefore, the right to food includes the right to assert one’s dignity. A threat to people’s right to food is a threat to their very existence and way of life.

If food is essential to life, how did the US get into this dire situation?

The federal government used the Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage farmers to expand westward and colonize more of Indigenous peoples’ territory. 今天, Native Americans fight for their territorial, hunting and fishing rights as a key way to assert their sovereignty and empower their people.

Life for everyone in rural communities is only getting more difficult. The number of farm bankruptcies has been rising every year since 2014, with an eight-year high in 2019. Suicide rates among people living in rural counties is 25% higher than those in major metropolitan areas because of poverty, low income and underemployment.

The number of Black farmers went from the nearly 1 million who farmed in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 today. Over the past century, Black farmers have lost more than 12m acres of farmland due to a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy and denied access to financial institutions.

At least half of all farmhands in the United States are undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America.

Many of these workers have been settled in the United States for decades, often the parents of US-born children, and live with the regular fear of deportation.

Food workers, especially in fast-food restaurants, have been fighting for years for a living wage of $15 一小时 and the right to unionize. Grocery store workers are on the frontline, forced to expose themselves to Covid-19 for the past year, and struggle to get the vaccine.

The US food system leaves its people hungry and its food producers destitute. The pandemic has made it clear to everyone that people who work in the fields, factories, markets and kitchens are essential for everyone’s wellbeing. But those food workers are treated like they are expendable. Even though communities have come together during the pandemic, there needs to be change across the food system.

The problem is clear: power is concentrated in the hands of a few rich individuals and corporations. Ever since the New Deal, the US’s agricultural policy encouraged the consolidation of farmland. 今天, Bill and Melinda Gates, 在 242,000 英亩, are the US’s largest private farmland owners. Four companies dominate the global agrochemical/seed market: Dupont, Bayer (which recently acquired Monsanto), Chemchina (which recently acquired Syngenta), and BASF.

For the past century, the US food system has been designed to extract as many nutrients and as much wealth as possible from the land, focusing on dominating nature instead of working with nature and enhancing biodiversity. This reliance on synthetic pesticides and manufactured fertilizers, this system driven by a logic of economic efficiency and industrial productivity, has caused long term damage to human, animal and environmental health. On a global scale, agriculture accounts for approximately one third of human greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not just the US food system that’s failing us. All over the world, hunger, malnutrition and famine have been on the rise since 2015, even though the world has had more than enough food to go around for everyone. Producing more food will not address the rise in hunger. People go hungry when they don’t get adequate food through things like access to land, jobs that pay a living wage or social protection programs. Food systems fail when political institutions fail.

The solution is also clear: give power back to the people. The right to food can offer people the power they need to rebuild their food system. There is a growing grassroots movement, and in some states, such as Maine, West Virginia and Washington, campaigns to amend the state constitution to include a right to food.

People, 然而, don’t have to wait for a state constitutional amendment or a federal one for that matter. Any public body and any group of people can use the right to food. Farmer groups and trade unions all over the world have made the right to food central to their campaigns and demands. Local governments such as those in 利物浦 and Manchester in the UK are voting to become “right to food” cities and inspiring others. In places such as Detroit and Jackson, Mississippi, Black communities are turning to urban farming to feed and empower people.

The right to food can be central to local campaigns. 例如, a growing number of schools in the US are working to ensure their students get access to fresh, nutritious and local food. Learning from Brazil, state or local governments could take up the right to food and create stable procurement partnerships between schools and local producers committed to enhancing social justice and biodiversity. You could imagine the same being done for universities and hospitals.

What the pandemic has taught a lot of people is that eating food that nourishes the body and spirit is the first step to staying healthy and strong. As food workers continue to struggle, as farmers lose their land, as schools close and restaurants shut down, people are confronted with the fact that their ability to eat well depends on their relationship to the people who produce their food. What food producers know all too well is that we all rely on our relationship with land and water as the source of all food. People’s dignity and their ability to take care of themselves depend on those relationships. For everyone to recover from the pandemic and its aftershock will require building a food system committed to reciprocity and not extraction – it will require everyone taking better care of their relationships with people and the land, air and water.