COVID-19 and the Right to Food
Exploring the Emergence of a Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice
Around the world, COVID-19 is shaking the foundation of our globalized economic system to its core. The “richest” countries in the world are staring into the face of an economic depression. In the United States, more than 38 million people across the nation applied for unemployment benefits in the last seven weeks alone, and millions more are expected to lose their jobs in the weeks to come. Officially, the unemployment rate in Canada has jumped to nearly 13% — more than any jump during the three major recessions since the 1980s. Meanwhile, economists in Canada agree that these figures do not capture the severity of the crisis when you factor in the erosion of employment insurance since the 1970s and the current ratio of housing costs to income. In the UK, unemployment has soared past three million people for the first time in 30 years.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive expansion of food charities. In the US, appeals for donations to food charities are a new media constant, and the government is relying heavily upon food banks to redirect agricultural waste. In Canada the federal government has allocated 50 million dollars to shore up the struggling food bank system. Food pantries and food banks were not a regular feature of life in the United Kingdom until 10 years ago. Now, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) have reported that independent food banks operating across the UK have seen a major rise in emergency food parcel distribution since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Almost a third of organizations experienced rises of 100% or more comparing figures for the months of March 2019 and March 2020. This crisis-within-a-crisis is accelerating the institutionalization of food banking in several countries, as a means of plastering over the gap between need and insufficient income for millions.
Following this pandemic (and already in motion) will be an equally staggering rise in food insecurity across the globe. COVID-19 has brought us to the proverbial crossroads. For several decades our governments have been abdicating their role to ensure the right to food for our nations, increasingly foisting this role onto the private sector. As a result, widespread food insecurity and wealth inequality has grown in our countries. The COVID-19 crisis has made evident that this ‘normal’ is no longer tenable. We are witnessing a private charitable feeding system that has for too long filled the protective role of government pushed to its limits. This is in combination with vertically integrated just-in-time food supply chains that are fraying at the edges. Such consequences are exposing the true extent — and root causes — of the hunger problem in these rich-but-unequal countries.
Make no mistake — this is not a new crisis, but a deepening of fault lines that millions of working families and low-income people have been straddling for the past 40 years. COVID-19 is heightening this decades-old crisis, deepening those cracks, and finally letting enough light in for all to see and experience deep contradictions in our food and social welfare systems and the uneven distribution of wealth that it begets. This voracious extractive economy we’ve been feeding is about to burst at the seams. It’s time for us to reach beyond our nation-states and mobilize, organize, and get loud together as a growing internationalist movement envisioning a different kind of world that centers people over profits and rebuilds the social contract.
Enter the newly named Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice. This group of non-governmental organizations, national networks, grassroots activists, and scholars began to emerge two years ago out of relationships built at Trans-Atlantic conferences and meetings, resulting in a growing shared analysis of and reaction to the increased use of private philanthropy and transnational corporate food banking as a response to “rich world” hunger and poverty.
Much of this analysis has a long-standing history; we’ve seen writing about the international dimensions of food charity since the 1980s, but the lasting effects of the 2008 global recession, together with the acceleration and expansion of the Global Foodbanking Network, which has evolved to disperse the charitable food model across the world, and have led to our renewed focus in organizing around these issues.
While the structural issues that this alliance addresses are global, the proliferation of institutionalized corporate food banking, private philanthropy, food banks, and other “emergency measures” as permanent responses to poverty and food insecurity originated in the United States, before spreading to Canada and, since the mid-1980s, have steadily advanced across Europe and other parts of the globe. These solutions have never addressed the root causes of food insecurity, and oftentimes exacerbate poverty. They have allowed governments to look the other way, ignoring income policies and human rights, all the while creating greater openings for the corporate capture of public policy and funding, as well as contributing to the downfall of the welfare state.
This particular analysis is currently missing, or not prominently understood, in the global movements for the right to food and food sovereignty. This #RightsNotCharity alliance seeks to complement and amplify the ongoing work of powerful grassroots networks and movements at national, regional, and global levels that are addressing food systems, public health inequities, poverty reduction and social security.
The Global Solidarity Alliance’s focus on so-called “wealthy” countries is a means to build a shared understanding among those in North America and Europe — especially among those who are on the frontlines and work alongside those most impacted by hunger and poverty — of the patterns of destructive policies which have taken hold in North America and are being replicated without criticism in European Countries, and beyond. We seek to build together collective strategies of resistance and alternative models and practices to promote the fulfillment of the right to nutritious food in our respective parts of the world. We also want to invite participation from beyond North America and Europe. In so doing, we will be better prepared to accompany our global allies who have long felt the perverse effects of resource extraction and colonialism by our governments and open collective pathways to authentically struggle for food sovereignty as a right of all people everywhere.
Originally published in Medium, Oct 1, 2020