Will the coronavirus change the future of food?

This is a question the Good Society Forum explored with José Luis Chicoma, Executive Director of Ethos Public Policy Lab (Mexico); Avi Szapiro, chef and owner of Roia Restaurant in New Haven CT (USA); Soledad Barruti, an investigative journalist and best-selling author of books Mala Leche and Malcomidos on food systems in Latin America (Argentina); and Hallie Davison, a documentary producer whose work includes the James Beard Award-winning Netflix series The Taco Chronicles (USA).

What was immediately clear from our panellists is a sentiment that has emerged across all our webinars, COVID has facilitated a depth of inquiry into the theme that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. More people are asking questions about where our food is coming from, whether lockdown measures will enable us to even get our food, and just who is having to go into work to ensure we are all able to eat. José Luis Chicoma summarises it best: “we are related in some ways that we haven’t been related for years”. But of course, the nature of the question differs depending on who is asking, as this pandemic exploits existing structural inequalities and therefore leads to very different experiences of it.

It was noted that more than 820m people globally were victims of food insecurity, and suffering from some type of hunger before COVID-19. This was around 12% of the world population that will now invariably get worse. With most global food crises stemming from conflict, climate change or economic uncertainty, the consequences of the current pandemic — particularly in the United States — are more comparable to the Great Depression of the 1920s than they are to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, according to Chicoma, with even more people entering the category of extreme poor and severe hunger. One would be forgiven to think this was due to a lack of food, but that simply is not the case. There is ample food being produced but inefficiencies in supply chains are preventing many, including those who are unemployed or suffering economically, to access that food.

This is especially acute in low-income nations, such as those across Latin America. Mexico’s largely informal economy, for example, means more than half of the nation’s workers receive their income daily, which they then use at local markets to buy their food. This daily dependence on local markets is partly why despite strict national lockdowns we have seen many people visiting markets across the continent, from Lima in Peru to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and why they have become epicentres of transmission; in just one fruit market in Lima, 79% of stall-holders tested positive for COVID-19. Chicoma notes that this both reflects the central role of such markets in public life, but equally raises concerns about why local authorities did not factor in such dependencies and incorporate earlier mitigating measures.

A woman buys produce at Lima’s central market as Peru extended a nationwide lockdown amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease. Photograph: Reuters

Perversely, the most visible signs of inefficient food supply chains can be found in our most developed nations. In the US alone, it is estimated that 30–40% of all food is wasted, and yet some 37 million people face hunger in the country every day. This is in part due to the industrialised scale of food production — often in sprawling labour-intensive plants — which, if shut down as we recently witnessed to protect the health of workers, results in millions of consumers being affected. And further fragility of the current system was clear for all to see when two of the biggest destinations of this food — the restaurant and hotel industries — were forced to shut down overnight, leading to moreuncertainty and wastage.

Avi Szapiro shared with us the realities of being part of a restaurant industry that was the first to close in response to COVID, and likely be the last to open; an industry that is the second-largest private employer in the country and which globally distributes 25% of all consumed food. Often with just a moment’s notice, restaurants have had to: reinvent themselves whilst simultaneously laying off staff, respond to changing and sometimes conflicting directives from authorities, adapt to the quickly changing behaviours of consumers in lockdown, and most importantly, try to keep their staff and customers safe.

Beyond the economic impact of dwindling revenues, both Szapiro and Hallie Davison — through her work with taqueros across the country — highlighted the very human emotional toll that these disruptions were causing. As well as supplying nutritional value through food, people in the food sector also prided themselves in providing an emotional value through their service, the absence of which was causing unexpected emotional loss.

However, it was also clear that the imposed circumstances were forcing innovation and adaptations for many in the industry. This ranged from smaller, nimble taquerias transforming their trucks and menus to suit the needs of a locality to restaurants like Szapiro’s Roia partnering with 22 other restaurants to found Frontline Foods New Haven; a collaborative endeavour that provided over 26,000 meals to the city’s frontline workers, which addressed a problem in the local supply chain during lockdown whilst also bringing in much-needed income. We also heard of different businesses maintaining their relationships using a host of creative online activity, from hosting Friday Bingo nights through to virtual cocktail classes.

And it wasn’t just local restaurants that were trying to maintain relationships with their customers and win over new ones. Soledad Barruti spoke of national advertising campaigns from large food corporates doing the same, including using war-like comparisons to influence consumer behaviour, a tactic steeped in war history that some companies actively reminisced on. Given the levels of uncertainty and fear precipitated by COVID, it was not a surprise to Barruti then that consumers trusted these larger brands and responded with war time-equivalent consumption. This consumption, however, disrupted a trend of the last few years, where purchases of processed foods were slowly decreasing in favour of real alternatives. This is explained by consumers wanting to understand their food more during a time of crisis, with ultra-processed items being labelled with detailed science outlining vitamins and minerals, whilst foods such as fruits are not.

The panel did highlight how despite this increase in processed food consumption, there is an underlying increase in the overall awareness of our food habits. Consciously eating three times a day has for many rekindled an emotional relationship with food beyond sustenance, with more people now baking, cooking family meals, and generally having the time to be more creative in the kitchen. Using this as a window of opportunity, it was suggested that now was the time to encourage a deeper understanding of nature, focused on its intersection with food systems that and moving away from its commodification, as well as a move back to promoting locally sourced produce grounded in the replenishment of cycles. This would need a pragmatic approach, working initially to build a heightened expectation of ethics from within companies, which many labourers and consumers alike currently rely on.

But there was consensus about the need to move away from a model where a few global companies dominate food systems: so that we can reduce food waste, eradicate hunger, and ensure the better allocation of food provision in cities across low-income nations, all of which are detrimentally impacted by the current marketised ecosystem. Furthermore, concerns about replicating scale should be addressed by the adoption of technology, whilst further gains can be made locally through high-quality information and access, which would go a long way to tackle existing food deserts. Soledad Barutti emphasised how “we cannot globalise something that should be local; food systems should be local because it depends on a territory, it depends on a culture, it depends on what you need”. It was further stressed that the very frame of thinking that causes our current situation of food insecurity and rampant hunger — one whereby we attempt to find a neat global solution for a neat global problem — should be vanquished, especially in regionally idiosyncratic contexts such as those across Latin America.

So just how are we meant to get there?

It was suggested that first, we must reconfigure how we see our relationship with sustainably-sourced food; it should be a right for everybody to access and be akin to a basic pillar of democracy. It must be elevated and normalised as a priority social issue, one that can be used to help legislate and advocate for our most vulnerable communities to be enriched with this access. Secondly, with the democratisation of social media, everyone can — and many might consider - being a storyteller and content creator. By being able to tell different parts of the story of what is a very complex food systems narrative, it maximises the chances of a new renewed and dominant narrative about the future of food. We have a once-in-a-generation moment to act.

The full webinar is available on YouTube.

By Nizam Uddin, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.