Global Food Security Program Director Shares Insights into COVID-19 Impact on Food Insecurity
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, June 12, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center welcomed for the eleventh webcast of its COVID-19 series Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to discuss the growing crisis of food insecurity during the pandemic. She spoke with Lisa Helfman, Director of Public Affairs Houston for H-E-B Grocery Company and co-founder of Brighter Bites, on how COVID-19 has affected food supply chains and the short- and long-term strategies to address both the local and global risks of food insecurity.
What was the state of food insecurity before the pandemic?
Welsh began by defining food security per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explaining it as when every member of the household has “access to enough food to lead an active, healthy lifestyle.” She noted that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 37 million people in the country were considered food insecure. This is often related to economic growth, she said, as food insecurity tends to increase during times of recession. She also noted that systemic issues play a part, with some communities having limited access to healthy food: often the cheapest options are unhealthy options instead of fruits and vegetables, and sometimes physical distance is the limiting factor, as is the case with food deserts. Globally, Welsh said, levels of food security are often related to agricultural production and, more recently, shocks related to climate change events and conflict.
How has COVID-19 affected food security?
Helfman asked about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on food security, noting the long lines at food banks and empty shelves at grocery stores during the onset of the pandemic. Welsh explained that food security is not the same as the availability of food, though they are often conflated, and clarified that the U.S. has significant stocks of grains as well as fruits and vegetables. “The food insecurity crisis that started with the pandemic didn’t have to do with production levels,” she said, naming friction points along the food system such as “food processing, food distribution, access to food at market, et cetera.”
She said this is an example of how the country’s food system’s supply chain is very efficient but not very flexible. For instance, when the pandemic shut down businesses and demand, many parts of the supply chain were not built to adapt and pivot quickly, leaving growers or producers with excess product and nowhere to send it. As a result, Welsh said, the country experienced high levels of food loss: in April alone, there was $5 billion lost in fruits and vegetables, and millions of animals were euthanized. She also noted challenges involving health risks, such as those experienced by workers at meat processing plants.
Welsh said that these types of pain points in the food system also led to cascading effects. In grocery stores, panic-buying and hoarding from individuals who believed they need to stock up during stay-at-home orders led to empty shelves, increased prices, and fewer products being donated to food banks, which in turn struggled to meet the increasing need from communities under economic pressure. Welsh said food banks across the country experienced a 70 percent increase in demand since the pandemic began, with 40 percent of customers never having been to food banks before. Helfman added that many food banks struggled with actual physical distribution, as well, so that even if they had increased financial means to purchase food, they couldn't get it out fast enough.
What should be done to address the current food insecurity crisis?
With the pandemic ongoing, Welsh said the federal government has a strong role to play in addressing food insecurity. She acknowledged the increases to food assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) in the existing stimulus packages, but said that, given the unprecedented economic downturn, the increases are not sufficiently large or for a long-enough time. Welsh emphasized that food banks and charitable giving are meant to be stop-gap measures in times of emergency, but should not be the system on which food insecure people rely to meet their needs.
Welsh also called for international action, as the current food crisis is a global one. She said that the last global food crisis in 2007–2008 was due to a lower production of food for global markets, plus upward pressure on prices — including 33 countries who implemented export bans to reserve their food for their own people. Welsh noted that the export bans, which are largely not a factor today, are an example of why international coordination is needed. In 2007–2008, the G7 and G20 pledged money to address food insecurity and to make prices in agricultural markets more transparent, among other actions. Welsh acknowledged that geopolitical relationships are vastly different today, but said that with 265 million additional people at risk of malnutrition due to the pandemic, international cooperation and response is vital.
What role can I play as an individual?
When asked what individual citizens can do, Welsh suggested both immediate actions as well as long-term ones. She said people could be thoughtful by buying only what they need to help avoid food waste and can, if they choose, eat less meat. She added that people could be considerate about the health risks faced by frontline workers in the food system, whether grocery store workers or delivery people, by reducing the amount of time spent talking to them and wearing masks when interacting with them. Helfman also recommended monetary donations to food banks, which can acquire food at cheaper rates than individuals.
For longer-term actions, Welsh highlighted the need for policy change. She suggested supporting better SNAP/WIC benefits, noting that these policies help money stay in the local economy as the food is purchased, rather than given as with food banks. She also said that with so many challenges in the meat supply chain now visible (with 24,000 cases of COVID-19 at meat processing plants across 33 states and 88 deaths), people may want to ask for better safeguards for workers in that industry, including better visa or immigration protection as well as access to healthcare. Finally, she also advocated for providing better access to healthy foods to more people, particularly as many existing health disparities have been revealed by the pandemic.
Welsh said the food insecurity issues caused by the pandemic are “going to take a long while to recover.” Especially for children who experience food insecurity early in life, she said, the effects of malnutrition can last for a lifetime. “It will take a diversity of actions in order to help us to recover from this,” she said, with Helfman adding that “we all have a role to play.”
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