Food in the Time of Covid-19

Before COVID-19, we all went about our daily lives, not really thinking too much about how the systems around us worked. Before COVID-19, we focused mainly on our to-do’s and our needs and our wants, with little consideration for how our actions impacted others – others directly around us or across the world.  

But things have changed, quickly and dramatically, life for human beings on this big, beautiful planet has changed.  

Now, our daily lives are wholly disrupted, from ‘stay-at-home’ and ‘social-distancing’ orders, job losses, reduced work hours, kids at home, etc. Now our to-do lists are more strategic, for example when to go to the store, we think about how much we really need, and if we even find what we are in search of. Now, even the slightest sneeze makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand up.  

I see more and more posts these days with hashtags such as #wereinthistogether, #stayhome, #westayatworkforyou, etc. The truth is, we always were very interconnected despite our obliviousness.  

For example, when buying food from large, consolidated, corporate retailers, yes, you can get some lettuce for $1.99 and some tomatoes for $2.99, but without realizing it, you are perpetuating deeply entrenched inequities across the food supply chain. And, don’t get me wrong, as a nonprofit employee on a limited income, I seek out affordable food from time to time too.  

But let’s set aside the issues of income inequality for just one moment. Food is a necessity. For millennia, humans scavenged, hunted and grew their food. They were, for all tenses and purposes, self-sufficient. After WWII, mechanized agriculture took off. And with it, mass-produced, processed foods became a symbol of affluence. The suburbanization of our communities, increasing reliance on personal transportation and an influx of cookie-cutter shopping centers replaced ‘victory gardens’ post-harvest community gleans and good, old-fashioned local markets.  

Small to mid-sized farmers were priced out of food markets and had to reinvent themselves as ‘food-to-plate’ entrepreneurs. A real food movement was afoot – farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, meal prep delivery companies sprung up overnight. This a good thing and it also had some unintended consequences.  

In a study conducted by UCSB researchers in 2011, concluded that less than 2% of the food grown in the county stayed in the county. This has not been replicated here in Ventura, but I can only imagine that figure is consistent here. Ventura agriculture business equates to over $2 billion in revenues. Our county ranks 10th or 11th in the nation for agricultural outputs. However, many neighborhoods in our county are located adjacent to what are known as ‘food deserts’ — more than a mile in walking distance to a store selling fresh produce. Moreover, 13% of county residents face some level of food insecurity, whether it be not having access to affordable, nutritious food or having to make hard choices between paying the rent or eating more healthy food. The truth is, $5 goes a lot further in many cases at a fast-food restaurant than it does as the local grocery store.  

Some food advocates insist that food is an inherent right, like healthcare (still highly debatable) or water, electricity and other public infrastructure. If that is true, then COVID-19 has only lifted the curtain to reveal the Great Wizard who is nothing more than a lonely old man. We are not in Kansas anymore, that is for sure.  

Policy leaders worldwide need to take some big risks right now. Not risks for public safety, but ones that might impact their re-election campaigns and donor funds. Right now the world needs to wake up from our fairy tale and realize that all this interconnectivity, the e-commerce infrastructure, and globalization isn’t working out so well for everyone.  

Now, back to income inequality. Small to mid-size farmers who try to pay their workers a living wage find it really hard to reduce the cost of their products so that it can be sold locally. Why? 

Because the cost of labor to grow grapes in Chile is cheaper than in California. But all of the costs from production, to processing, to transporting, to distributing via the retail system are externalized. Share-holder profits trump living wages. Corporate boards make decisions that impact communities thousands of miles away without their knowledge or consent. It brings up a good question, is healthy food a right or a luxury? Is food a commodity or a basic need?  

Okay – so the system is a little whacked. But what can you do? I mean, you are just trying to make it in the crazy world and now with this pandemic, every aspect of your life has been turned up-side-down.  

Well, here are some ideas:

Plant a garden. 

  • Even if all you have are a few pots on your balcony, plant some seeds and watch them grow. You can even start some veggies right from their cuttings.  
  • Donate food or time. You can help out the legions of volunteers who help box and distribute food to those in need. To find out where or how to volunteer visit your local United Way website for listings.

Inventory your pantry. Take an inventory of what you have in your pantry now and start researching creative ways to make meals from what you already have. You may not really need to go to the grocery store for a good week. 

Shop at Farmer’s Markets. You can find sweet deals at your local market

  • You can buy only what you need vs. having to buy larger quantities with the risk of it spoiling. And you can help contribute to our local, circular economy. 

Sure, COVID-19 has introduced some challenges to our daily lives but it has also helped remind a lot of folks what’s really important. Our families, our friends, our communities, and life as we know it on this big blue planet is interconnected – for good or bad, #weareinthistogether so why not make the most of it. So, the next time our community is faced with crisis, we are stronger, more resilient and able to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.

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