Pandemic and joblessness expose big problems in one health basic: food supplies
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed millions of Americans to huge problems in one of the most basic elements of their health and well-being — their food supply.
It’s past time for all of us to demand changes, and we may want to ask why, in the midst of a global economic calamity, that politicians persist in pursuing policies that will mean men, women, and children across this land will go hungry.
As the jobless numbers skyrocket toward Depression era figures, people in need — from coast to coast — have queued up in sometimes miles-long lines to get donated staples. Schools, including those throughout the Washington, D.C., area, have put together giant programs to sustain student meal plans, providing myriad youngsters what may be their only reliable nutrition. Social service agencies have launched targeted efforts to ensure that seniors, especially shut-ins, get fed.
Researchers at the nonpartisan, independent RAND Corporation posted about the evidence-based worry that for “14.3 million American households already experiencing food insecurity, Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions have created new layers of hardship.” They focused on groups, including:
“Millions of children affected by school closures no longer have access to federally subsidized school lunches (29.7 million), breakfasts (14.7 million), or after-school snacks (1.2 million). These lost meals are particularly troubling for the 11 million (PDF) children in 2018 that lived in food insecure households. A third of college students report (PDF) that they are routinely food insecure. Now they can no longer rely on subsidized meal plans, campus housing, or campus food service businesses because of school closures. Individuals living in neighborhoods with already limited access to grocery stores and restaurants are likely experiencing additional difficulties due to business closures and transit restrictions. Households with elderly individuals, 2.9 million of which are food insecure, are no longer able rely on federally subsidized meals served in group settings or adult care facilities. This is especially concerning given that elderly individuals are at risk for severe COVID-19–associated illness. Many consumers will have less money to spend on food due to lost paychecks stemming from illness, increased child/caregiver responsibilities, and social distancing measures. Such challenges may be particularly acute for those without paid leave, health insurance, or unemployment insurance or those employed in precarious work positions. Empty shelves may be especially harmful to families who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which limits benefits to specific staple foods.”
Even better-off Americans may find themselves shocked still to make their worrisome, occasional grocery store runs, with face coverings and gloves on, only to find shelves bare, still, of foods that were plentiful just weeks ago. Officials insist shortages are localized.
Make no mistake about it, though: The food to sustain us all hasn’t vaporized. It didn’t get pillaged by an invading army or zapped by mythical aliens. No, it’s possibly worse: Farmers and producers are killing livestock, spilling milk, destroying eggs, and letting fields lie fallow as they, too, confront their own financial nightmares.
What’s wrong with this picture? Lots. Lots can and has been said here, and elsewhere in health and medical information sites, about Americans and how they eat — too often to the detriment.
The nation is getting an unhappy education about scale, supply chains, and business logistics. There’s plenty of wood pulp, water, and manufacturing capacity, for example, but a significant reason why toilet paper and paper towels still may be scarce on too many retail shelves has to do with how these common products get produced, for whom, and then how they get moved from factory to user. Those who make TP and other paper products see most of their revenue with big businesses — offices, shopping malls, big plants. There, they can deliver a different grade (rougher) product in large sizes, in huge packaging (pallets), and with less-frequent delivery. It’s difficult for companies to shift on a dime to a consumer focus.
It’s working this way, too, with food. It’s no secret that the crushing demands to make ends meet have meant that the grownups in a house who can work must do so — too long and for too little. This also means that there has been precious little time for buying and preparing food, often in ways that would be better for Americans’ health.
Instead, as the books and documentaries have duly noted, the United States has become a “fast food nation.” Rich or poor, Americans have become so time-strapped and addicted to salt, sugar, and highly processed foods that industrial-level production of our meals, most notably in fast food joints on every corner, have become the norm for too many. Restaurants and dining out also have risen to be pillars of Americans’ non-work lives.
But commercial kitchens work at a size and scale that’s as different from home cooking as is the engine in the kid’s car versus the motor in an 18-wheeler. And, again, suppliers have shifted their efforts to filling the demands of the likes of McDonald’s (which by some estimates consumes as much as 2% of the nation’s egg supply for its well-known breakfast sandwiches) or Kentucky Fried Chicken or that 100-seat white linen restaurant in the suburbs — not to households. Big Agriculture has made big money working with Big Food.
Unfavorable weather — likely tied to climate change — also has smacked important growing areas, whether with drought on the West Coast or inundation in the Midwestern Heartland. Poor weather and other crop problems have plagued nations since the biblical pharaohs, of course. The leader of the free world, however, took a recent path that historians and economists long will study, declaring that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” and launching into tariff battles pitting the planet’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies.
The economic skirmishing fast became a financial devastation to U.S. farmers. So, the Trump Administration, largely bypassing Congress, ordered what would become $28 billion in aid to growers of soybeans, corn, wheat, and other crops. That’s more than twice the size of the package that the Bush and Obama administrations put up, and mostly got paid back, to rescue the auto industry.
Academic experts say the administration overpaid the farmers, who complain that the trade wars and the support they got for it still has left them in the hole, including with full warehouses and bad prices. Critics also have questioned whether too much money went to Big Ag, not mom-and-pop farms. All that Trump spending, by the way, included 4% of the total to buy foodstuffs for distribution to food banks and other charities aiding the hungry.
But until the pandemic turned bad and Congress members and the federal courts started firing at the administration, Trump officials held steadfast to their plans to slash nutrition programs, notably with cuts that would have cut off 700,000 food stamp recipients. The plans have been shelved for now but their cruelty will be hard to forget.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the benefits they can get by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. The coronavirus threatens to swamp our health resources, which, in their better times, already had notable problems with infections acquired in hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical care giving facilities, as well as major challenges with medical error and misdiagnoses. That said, at this difficult moment, we need to support doctors, hospitals, and public health officials as they marshal science, evidence, and facts to battle the global menace of Covid-19.
In the days ahead, though, this terrible time may give us a chance to reflect on and to improve our own eating and to think about how we can better the vital systems that feed us. We need to break away from the pushers of excess salt, sugar, and additives. We may want to look hard at how we can help workers, so they aren’t so stressed and overworked that they are captive to fast and over-processed and prepared food. In what still is the wealthiest nation in the world, a country of plenty, we also need to do much more to ensure that no man, woman, or child goes hungry. (The firm and I long have supported area organizations that battle hunger and that you may wish to consider donating to, including Bread for the City, D.C. Central Kitchen, Maryland Food Bank and So Others Might Eat.)
Chef José Andrés, who has won global acclaim for his food philanthropy, has suggested that the nation urgently needs a food czar, a leader to advise the president not only about fighting hunger and improving nutrition nationwide, but also assisting the beleaguered restaurant industry, with what he estimates are just under 1 million businesses and big and jobless workforces. His idea is worth considering — and, no, the current Agriculture Secretary isn’t filling this role.
Why you may ask? As with many other administration figures, he’s shown more interest in taxpayers supporting Big Agriculture than in their being made more food secure. Just consider the latest plan by the administration to slash the already parsimonious pay to farm workers to prop up the industry. Just as the nation is desperate to keep its economy going and to stay fed, how much sense does it make to beat down more the poor and hard working folks in the fields — unless the president and his allies want to bash them and others with racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant nonsense?
We’ve got a lot of work to do, not only to beat Covid-19 but to emerge from this awful episode in a better place.