Each autumn, reminders of harvests and bounty become evident through the traditions and holidays we celebrate. Yet still many face food insecurity every day. Because of these cultural reminders, there is an increase in food-access interest, most notably around Thanksgiving, a holiday steeped in celebration of bounties of food and togetherness.
To unpack a little further, beyond the holiday triggers, the lack of food access is a demonstration of historical cycles, external influences, and systems-based practices that create a barrier to food security that seem insurmountable.
With current circumstances, inflation is the most notable development of food insecurity. Inflation has hit the highest levels seen in the last 40 years, due to a variety of factors. The USDA warns that the outlook for food costs remains grim, as prices of both meat and produce continue to rise and stabilize at higher rates.
To question and trace back the circumstances surrounding these increases is a torrid journey, branching into many wormholes worth investigating. Of course, the most succinct (yet ironically, not) answer is to point to the most contemporary dominos that have fallen. The war between Russia and Ukraine has caused a fuel, fertilizer, and food production shortage globally. The recent Avian flu outbreak has made poultry and egg prices hard to maintain. COVID-19 and immigration stagnation has also lent a hand in production worker shortages.
Let’s not stop there, though. We are only at a footnote of this “Lord of the Rings” level breakdown of food security. For the sake of brevity, we’ll stick to the 20th and 21st centuries.
Within these parameters, the first showcase of an unraveling system happened after the first World War. In 1920, agriculture as an industry experienced the Great Depression nearly a full decade before the rest of the economic landscape. System changes, eerily similar to the ones made in the last six years, caused 1 in 4 farms to be sold. In the spirit of American “rugged individualism” loans were made available to the remaining farmers clinging to their family legacies and years of physical investment. Not just farmers were pushed into the system of questionable loans. So, it is no surprise that after another nine years of struggle, those loans became so faulty that they propelled the nation into the greatest economic depression to ever hit the United States.
However, from an economic “famine” a feast did arise. It just took about forty more years to build enough momentum. Through the decline of farmers in the United States, the family farmer population dropped from 60% to below 20%. And to compound the misfortune, many of those dispossessed farmers were Black. Once a robust population of farmers, Black-owned and operated farms now only make up 1.3% of farms. So all that land, vacant and owned by banks or purchased outright, where did it go?
The feast that was alluded to was not a feast for the people, but rather for a new booming opportunity: corporate farming. What corporate farming did was create a system that allowed for the chronic disinvestment of localized farming and access to food. It fed an increased opportunity for processed food, making it more advantageous for large amounts of food with longer shelf lives to be made, regardless of the health benefits.
More economical and convenient food sounded like a great premise, but in the end, it caused a series of generational health issues and conditions. High sugars, high carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients allowed for addictive, pound-packing, and diet-related disease ramifications. Today, processed foods make up the majority of what is purchased, not just because of convenience, but because of preferences focusing on familiarity rather than nutrition. Additionally, because of the long shelf-life, many food pantries gravitate towards pre-packaged foods because the risk of spoilage is minimal and easy to define with “best buy” dates.
Further, food apartheid in majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods creates low opportunities for accessing fresh foods. So, with increased prices and limited access, food insecurity, specifically nutritious food insecurity, remains a dominant problem in this country.
So what are our solutions? This problem, years in the making is not an easy one to disentangle. A multi-pronged approach is necessary to actually address causation and correlations keeping us in this persistent state. Through social movements like OneRouge, opportunities for collaborations between food providers and food producers are a pathway toward access. Initiating food shares and farmers’ markets (with EBT/SNAP acceptance and dollar doubling) in areas of food apartheid allows for access for the individual while providing income for the participating farmer. But it can’t stop there, food will always be required, thus education about food growth and consumption is critical.
Joining forces is a step in the right direction because the “rugged individualism” of the past is what lead to this point in time. When something as important as food is thrown away (not due to spoilage) to maintain prices and profits, there is a serious societal problem. Addressing it will take a united effort from the bottom up.