By Audrey Friedline and Liz Szafranski
Time since the beginning of this global pandemic can be measured by the size of the zucchini plant outside Audrey’s bedroom window. On nearly day one of quarantine, she knelt beside a garden bed and planted a seed, not much bigger than the size of a pencil eraser, into the ground. Now, four months later, that seed has blossomed into a plant that is 3 feet wide, blooming with yellow flowers and covered with vividly green, dinner plate sized leaves. The plant has stretched over the patch of dirt and its fruit is starting to make itself known.
Like us, COVID-19 may have forced you into a new relationship with food. Newfound time in quarantine may have brought you closer to your food as you also planted seeds and watched them sprout, kneaded your hands into bread dough, or experimented with new recipes.
However, the same pandemic may have caused you to feel increasingly distanced from food sources, as changing incomes led to a scramble to figure out how to feed your family or health conditions caused anxieties to rise about how to secure food supplies in safe ways. This pandemic may have brought you closer to your food, further from your food, or a mix of both. But regardless, food has been part of your COVID-19 experience.
Pandemic or not, the food that ends up on your plate has always traveled a complicated, exploitative, and convoluted path to get there. In fact, when one begins to peel back the layers on our food system, one might even realize that it was built to keep some of us very full while the rest starve.
You might begin to think about the inhumane conditions, minimal pay, and backbreaking labor migrant workers endure to harvest our food. You may think of the unequal distribution of grocery stores allowing communities with abundant resources easy access to healthy foods, while lower-income communities have very few options. You may think of the thousands of miles some of our produce travels, year-round, to make it to your store, and the high amount of carbon fuel it takes to make it there.
You may think about the struggle for Native communities to have sovereignty over and access to the plants that serve as binding ropes to culture, as colonial forces have built a “single species” diet and wiped out many native species. You may think about how, after generations of Black bodies working the land and inventing and passing down traditions of sustainable farming, now only 0.5% of American farmland is owned by Black people, and relationships to the land has been severed.
You may think of a multitude of other reasons.
When you sprinkle in a virus as widespread and dangerous as COVID-19 to a food system that is already exploitative, a perfect recipe of chaos is created that disproportionately affects the food security of people of color.
In the United States, the initial stages of the pandemic were marked by the closures of offices, restaurants, and schools. Grocery store workers and farm workers were recognized as essential workers to continue the movement of food supply chains. As we were able to keep eating, these workers lacked resources and options to protect themselves, leading to higher infection rates and deadly ramifications as seen in the farmworker community of Immokalee, Florida. These same food service and agricultural industries largely employ people of color, adding a racial component to this unequal virus exposure.
It was quickly realized that the correlation may further show that food service industry workers may have a harder time maintaining food security in the pandemic. If you can’t do your job due to illness or unexpected lay-off, you won’t be able to afford food to feed your own family. In addition, job loss has not been equal across industries. For example, employment in technology or the oil and gas sectors can much more easily transition to virtual employment, while food industry and hospitality workers are left without work and without salaries. This leaves an entire class of people without income. These industries also provide less ability to save for emergencies such as this, creating even greater food insecurity during this crisis.
In Washington, D.C., we have seen local government, nonprofits, restaurants, and community members get creative about responses to food insecurity that has been exacerbated by the virus. For example, the local government has worked as a bridge to connect restaurants' food supply with nonprofits, so food can be redistributed. Restaurants have changed their modes of production, to keep people employed but making products more needed in this time, like hand sanitizer, or selling raw materials in a CSA model to provide families with locally sourced groceries.
Local nonprofits in the District, like D.C. Central Kitchen, have taken the lead in providing breakfast and lunch daily to school children and their families. SNAP benefits have expanded to some delivery models so that high risk individuals do not have to leave their homes to purchase food. And mutual aid groups have allowed neighbors to share food with each other. While these are needed immediate reactions to big problems within our food system, these solutions act much like spraying a squirt gun on a burning building, as they do nothing to address the deep-seated inequalities within our food system.
Food banks, nonprofits, and mutual aid systems are not intended to be permanent solutions. They are meant to support people as they work to gain independent access to food. The fact that communities heavily relied on them even before the pandemic points to a fundamentally broken food system wherein people are not able to afford the most basic things necessary for survival.
As urban gardeners managing a community garden in D.C., it is clear that long-term solutions only come when communities and individuals begin to pull closer and gain autonomy over their sources of food. When communities or individuals invest in growing their own food, they are able to access and eat healthy, cost-efficient, ethical, and sustainable produce. Further, a sense of community is fostered, where neighbors begin to take care of neighbors, new skills are learned, cultural crops can reemerge, and a sense of economic independence can even appear.
Likewise, policy change is a crucial part of supporting a sustainable and equitable food system. Reimagining policies — that could include subsidies for small farmers, similar to those large farming corporations enjoy, or reclaiming unused space for community agriculture — are good places to start. These policies, combined with community members willing to invest time into creating small local spaces for agriculture, can begin to create new relationships with our food.
Perhaps, now, with a global pandemic exposing many of the gaps in our food system, people might have the time to learn, imagine, and create community-based food systems that truly serve all people.
Soon, that zucchini growing outside the bedroom window will be harvested. While the vegetable fills us up, we will recognize that in the same time it took to grow that produce from seed, COVID-19 has caused compounding problems and exposed some of the glaring inequalities of our food system. We will acknowledge that it is the result of a system that is built to exploit and disproportionally causes harm on communities of color. We will eat and we will be reminded to draw closer to our food and to dig into the messy, intersectional work of pursuing a healthier food system so that we can grow a more beautiful, sustainable world for all people.
About the authors: Audrey Friedline and Liz Szafranski are managers of the GroW Community Garden and students at George Washington University. Audrey is a rising senior studying International Affairs and Sustainability and Liz is a rising sophomore studying Biology and Geography. They both love plants and care about food justice issues.