The coronavirus laid bare just how poorly our food systems function. Most of us eat food that travels hundreds, if not thousands, of miles before arriving on our plates. The most vulnerable among us—frontline communities that live in food deserts with little access to fresh, healthy food—already knew this. The pandemic, however, made this reality clear for the rest of us.
Not only did we see restaurants shut down. We also saw schools shut down, a vital source of meals for children. Throughout these closures, food providers (think: farmers) struggled to find a market for their items. Meanwhile, agricultural and meat laborers—a workforce that’s largely invisible due to its migrant nature—became essential workers, operating on the frontlines of a pandemic to keep grocery shelves stocked and families fed. These industries saw severe worker shortages as the COVID-19 hit their employees in unforeseeable ways.
The climate crisis requires some serious reconfiguring of all of the above. One-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from food. If we’re going to decarbonize this sector without exacerbating the inequities and food insecurity that already exists, we’re going to have to be very intentional and careful.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we believe food is a human right. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In our final story for Futures Week, we’re looking at everything food-related. We already covered where people live and how they get around. What about what they eat and where it comes from?
Amber Tamm has a simple goal as a Black farmer in the food justice space: to make food free.
Other farmers, especially older ones who’ve been in the game for a hot minute, used to scoff and tell her to be more realistic. After the pandemic hit, however, her vision wasn’t so radical anymore. Farmers lost markets to sell their food, but the demand remains. People are still hungry.
“We’re going to need a different way to do things,” Tamm says. “In my head, the only way to do that is to feed those who are actually hungry. With the pivot to equity right now during the pandemic, that’s the only way we’re going to get the amount of money we need to take care of ourselves. Why not receive that money to take care of yourself while taking care of other people at the same time?”
As someone who’s experienced houselessness and hunger herself, she understands the value of closing this gap. Tamm is still figuring out what this model may look like, but her work touches on a critical question around the food industry at large. Does it serve to make a profit for multinational corporations? Or does it serve to keep people fed and healthy? The former is how the industry currently operates; it’s an extractive, exploitive model that’s damaging people and the planet.
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We see this across the supply chain. We tear down forests to create farms. We then operate through degenerative practices that leave soil eroded, animals abused, and nearby communities polluted. The transportation and packaging leg of our food’s journey is no better for the planet. It involves plenty of fossil fuels to manufacture the plastic that wraps our goods and to fuel the vehicles that transport our food. After all that, we wind up throwing out a whopping 30 percent of our food in the U.S.
This sector needs change—and a coalition of farmers and ranchers want to see it happen. In 2019, a coalition of 10,000 farmers and ranchers came together in support of a Green New Deal that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this sector while creating well-paying jobs that help eliminate food insecurity. When it comes to food, much of what we hear is to go vegan (its roots aren’t white, by the way), eat local, and avoid meat as much as possible. Ultimately, the consumer can’t carry all the weight. The whole system needs restructuring. Scientists support this, too. In 2019, researchers called on government leaders to set timelines for when they’ll stop increasing production of meat. That responsibility should rest with our leaders.
And President Joe Biden, at least, appears up to the task. He has promised to decarbonize the agriculture and food sector by investing in new research technologies that can help, as well as investing in young farmers and creating new job opportunities for farmers and ranchers of color who have long been excluded from the industry. His climate plan’s agriculture section is extensive and encouraging, but we’ll have to see how it translates to policy. That’ll largely rely on the work that happens on the ground.
“Pressure from the local and state level is going to be needed for anyone in the White House to really hold them to these commitments and make them as strong as possible because it’s not easy work to shift the system,” says Margaret Brown, a senior attorney at NRDC. “We need folks from communities across the country to really continue to put pressure on him to advance on those issues.”
What we need are food systems that are more localized and unique to their community’s needs and cultures. These systems need to focus on feeding communities healthy meals and creating economic opportunities for them along the way. The ultimate goal is creating a new food system that also improves the local economy and health outcomes, too, Brown says. Just the way the pandemic disrupted supply chains, so will extreme weather events that grow more common in a heat-ravaged world. If COVID-19 were a test on our food system’s resilience, it failed.
“A lot of the solutions already exist for the food system that we want,” Brown says. “The challenge ahead is to really make space for and listen to local communities, communities of color, Indigenous communities that know the solutions and who are closest to the daily brunt of the broken food system.”
“We’re going to need a different way to do things. In my head, the only way to do that is to feed those who are actually hungry.”
In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, for instance, a shift to a more sustainable and equitable food system looks like mobile food pantries, outdoor food markets, and community-run grocery stores. In New York City, Tamm envisions more community fridges and farm to people programs. In Oahu, Hawaii, Native Hawaiians have been working on creating more taro patches to bring back their ancestral food traditions that were lost to sugar and rice fields.
The technology and research in this space continues. MIT, for instance, is researching how local retailers can keep fresh foods stocked and rely on local producers for that food instead of far-off farms, says Ken Cottrill, the editorial director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. Costs play a major barrier right now, but changes to existing processes (like inventory management) and advances in artificial intelligence can help reduce these costs to make the option more appealing. Here’s the thing, though: Only so much work can happen throughout the supply chain before the question around cost arises—especially the cost on the consumer.
So long as poverty and disinvestment into Black and brown communities exists, families will be forced to choose unhealthy meals if that means more money for rent or utilities. Tamm put it best: “Some people can’t or honestly don’t want to pay $5 for seven leaves of kale and call that lunch. That’s hard when you can actually get something that gets your serotonin popping that is a bacon, egg, and cheese from the corner store.”
I hear that.