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Vulnerable Populations at Greatest Risk for COVID-Induced Famine

Food studies professor Anne Bellows discusses food shortages and how students can help shape national policy

In 2018, more than 14 million American households-including 2.7 million with children-couldn't afford adequate food. Over the previous decade, food insecurity rates declined after a spike in 2008 that was brought on by recession. Now that the pandemic has essentially closed large parts of the global economy, a new wave of economic recession places millions of people at risk of going hungry.

The hardest hit communities are usually those who face social and structural discrimination and who have the least amount of resources to fall back on, says Professor Anne Bellows, director of the Food Studies graduate program at Syracuse University's David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. "Massive unemployment and overburdened or nonexistent public support systems leave consumers without money for basic necessities, including food," says Bellows, whose research interests focus on food and nutrition systems, security and human rights.

We reached out to Professor Bellows to help frame the pandemic's impact on food systems and how student researchers can make a difference.

How do you expect the world's food supply to be impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?

First, in terms of production, long food chains are, or will likely be, disrupted by international border closings. This will exacerbate chronic food insecurity, discrimination and poverty. Those most at risk are already subject to existing patterns of discrimination based on race, age, legal status, gender, sexuality and so on. In the U.S., we already have chronic and increasing reliance on an emergency food system that includes a patchwork array of charity and government entitlement programs. This approach has already proven to be highly inadequate at handling food insecurity on the local, national and even global scale. The COVID-19 pandemic magnifies the need and exposes the inadequacy of our response to people's human right to adequate food and nutrition.

How will pandemic-related challenges impact an already burdened system?

Issues with production and consumption will exacerbate the total numbers of people seeking emergency food. In addition, an increasing percentage of the socially marginalized will be among those seeking emergency food. This combination will strain an already poorly operating food system and inadequate response in the context of chronic poverty and food insecurity. It denies people food sovereignty.

Can you define food sovereignty?

Food sovereignty is one's control over resources and decision making about food systems and the human right to food and nutrition. This concept extends to individuals, communities and nations. On an international scale, it specifically references having the capability to withstand the transnational agri-food and pharmaceutical corporate-based industrial economy that interferes with local and national autonomy and sovereignty. Food sovereignty and the right to food and nutrition require much more than feeding people a certain minimum number of calories per day. It will be defined uniquely in every location, but it will include the means for everyone to either buy food or grow food with dignity. This in turn means that jobs must pay living and equitable wages. Other life necessities must be affordable, including housing, health care, child care and education. It means that the access and use of resources to produce food (land, fisheries, forests) must be fairly and equitably available without threat of resource monopolies. Social protection measures need to be available as well, but the foundation for food security is based on social, economic and political justice-not food handouts.

What are the greatest weaknesses of the current food system?

There are several contributing variables. First, both the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and the 2000 United Nations Global Compact give the corporate private sector too big a role in public decision making. There is an incongruence between USDA's nutritional standards and its subsidies to industrial agriculture that produce foods linked to chronic disease like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancers. The often insidious and profitable side of corporate and private charity has encouraged public sector neglect of the chronic, discriminatory and inadequate response to poverty and food insecurity. And, in terms of public policy and economic justice, there's inadequate access to the means to maintain needed resources like land, water and seeds. Examples of this are water privatization, land grabbing, seed "ownership" and monopolies.

How does research provide an opportunity for students to help shape national policy and solve challenges like famine?

Students bring new perspectives that shape the trajectories of knowledge production. A successful student researcher has perseverance. They are a reader. They recognize and accept the importance of editing and rewrites. I mentor two Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) grant recipients. Bea Fry '20 has been looking at the intersection of right to food and LGBT rights violations, and her work has been used as a supplementary report on the right to food submitted for the 2020 United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the United States on its human rights record. The other student, Sierra Endreny '20, is looking at comparative approaches to urban food forest management. Sierra's interest in horizons beyond Syracuse will help inform work on the Syracuse Urban Food Forest Project, a joint endeavor of Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Projects like these do not address famine as it is understood at the international level, but they are critical for alternative understandings of, and approaches to, food insecurity; thus, they give students the chance to make meaningful contributions in shaping regional and national policy.


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