The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our food distribution system so that many farmers must dump food products that would otherwise rot. This blow to already vulnerable small- and medium-sized farms exposes the weakness and underlying corruption of American politics and the failure of courage and will so endemic to our Congress.
The New York Times has provided outstanding reporting on the growing farm crisis and the resulting waste of food. Yet the federal government, including Democratic leadership, whom we might hope would provide support where Republicans obviously won’t, has not taken steps to deliver this food to those most in need during the pandemic.
Farmers say that they can sell the food if they can get it to grocery stores, where demand has skyrocketed due to the mass closings of restaurants and hotels. It is proving impossible, however. Many farmers are doing donating excess food to food banks but face the same obstacles there as in getting their food to market.
At least 40 million Americans live hungry. Cuts to food stamps, school lunches, and other programs have guaranteed that more of our fellow citizens will suffer hunger and that those already hungry will grow hungrier. Food pantries and soup kitchens are wonderfully generous efforts but they can only alleviate the pangs of a small number of people. Having worked to bring fresh produce to underserved inner city neighborhoods, I can attest to how little effort our governments expend, at every level, on assuring a nutritionally adequate food supply to the poor. America has had a food crisis for a long time. The coronavirus is just making it worse. The threat is long-term because in today’s America, once a family slips below a certain economic threshold, it becomes very difficult to scramble back up the slope. Neither the jobs nor social supports are in place to buck relentless economic trends.
Even before the virus struck, America throws away over 100 billion pounds of food a year. Much of that disposed of food is perfectly edible. But there is no coherent, nation-wide or state-wide effort to maximize food access for the general population even when the food is winding up in dumpsters.
For example, in Boston many students from poorer areas go to school on buses whose routes can take two hours. Many wake up at 5:00 am and have no time for breakfast. Yet federal cuts to school food programs make it increasingly difficult to assure these children an all-important first meal. Often the schools provide breakfasts within their already strapped budgets, but these are usually packets of processed food with minimal nutritional value; their main job is to make the kids’ stomachs feel full. Such under-nutrition has a direct impact on students’ ability to focus in school. Suburban parents whose kids wake up at a reasonable time to a full breakfast and are driven 10 or 15 minutes to school cannot conceive of the wear and tear on families and education that so many financially poorer students experience.
The disruptions to food delivery and to our health system arise from the same combination of greed, corruption, and indifference. This is not just about the social “safety net”. It brings into question the long-term viability of our society. How can Congress and governors fail to step up and provide leadership in getting this wasted food to the hungry? Instead, we are treated to the most general platitudes about doing a better job going forward. Joe Biden, for instance, in an op-ed piece in the Times, trots out the usual prescriptions for getting “back on track”. His article covers the basics of good crisis management: more testing, continued social distancing, better tests, making hospitals more effective in handling crisis. In other words, generalities that anyone can agree with. True to his political orientation, he would convene a panel of industry leaders to help achieve these goals.
Catch-22, Joe! Health care and food programs have been devastated by major cuts in every area largely because of the policies advocated and lobbied for by corporate leaders. As a presumptive candidate running against a heartless bungler, Biden’s got to do better than that. Here’s a few he might have suggested that could alleviate the related problems of food waste and a failing health care system:
- Fund delivery of “excess” food to poor neighborhoods. Provide subsidies to food outlets to assist in this effort, which would be financially ruinous for them on the level required; government resources are necessary. Food access is one of the critical flash-points in the toll the virus is taking as the working class and blacks take the brunt of the virus.
- Provide adequate affordable universal health care that is not controlled by the for-profit insurance industry. (Biden has already come out against “Medicare for all”).
- Make sure every child has at least two real meals every school day. The food should be nutritionally sound and not based on a processed formula dressed up as food.
- Grant workers’ committees real authority (not just window-dressing “representation) in every industry-wide health and safety planning initiative. Actually, workers should demand such authority. Corporate executives, as a group, are far more interested in profit than in workers or public welfare. If that were not true, unions would not have had to fight so fiercely for child labor laws, minimum wages, five day weeks, health benefits, vacation, and all the other things we once took for granted and that have been eroding for the past four decades.
Where will the money come from? That’s for another article but the short answer is: curbing military expenditures; closing corporate tax loopholes; increasing the percentage of the income tax on hyper-wealthy individuals; and recovering the trillions of dollars so many corporations, banks, and the wealthiest Americans have hidden in offshore accounts. However, our fear-and-greed driven system has no interest in allocating funds to those already kicked off the gravy train. As the ads used to say about Gravy Train: it makes its own gravy.
Getting America “back on track” or “back to normal” after the virus is not good enough. That track, that normalcy, has failed. In America, the so-called wealthiest nation on earth, tens of millions go hungry while food is dumped because no one in government can get it together to get it to them. Are the 20% of hungry Americans no longer represented by our system? Are they no longer Americans? Are they not women, children, and men? The first job of government is to protect the physical security of its citizens, both current and aspiring, so they can enjoy the other benefits offered by a stable association of citizens. If we can’t do that, the legitimacy of that government vanishes. Unfortunately, we already have too many powerful interests looking to do just that. Feeding hungry Americans is nourishing for America itself. Let’s get to it.