As the U.S. enters the holiday season, millions of people across the country are struggling to find enough to eat, with the hunger relief group Feeding America warning that some 54 million U.S. residents currently face food insecurity amid a massive public health and economic crisis. Food insecurity in the U.S. has intensified after the expiration of federal assistance programs in the CARES Act, and the United Nations World Food Programme predicts acute hunger could affect 270 million people worldwide by the end of 2020 — an 82% increase since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. We speak with author and filmmaker Raj Patel, host of the food politics podcast “The Secret Ingredient,” who says hunger was already at alarming levels in the U.S. before the pandemic, and it’s only gotten worse. “The long story here is the continuing war on the American working class,” Patel says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we look now at the growing number of people in the United States who do not have enough food to eat. Thousands upon thousands are standing in lines in food pantries and parked in hours-long, miles-long lines of cars at food banks across the country. A recent poll found four in 10 Americans say they’ve experienced food insecurity for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in New York, some food banks had to turn away families amidst unprecedented demand. This is Harlem resident Ruth Crawford in line at a food bank that handed out 500 turkeys to residents, including herself.
RUTH CRAWFORD: You have to try to relax and think of the better things, because it wasn’t always like this. But this is getting to people, and it’s just sad. I mean, you work all the time, and then you can’t go to work, or you can’t work from home. So it’s not easy.
AMY GOODMAN: The hunger relief group Feeding America warns some 54 million U.S. residents currently face food insecurity amidst a massive public health and economic crisis. Two recent surveys found almost 10% of parents with children under the age of 5 cannot afford enough food for their kids. Many say they’ve struggled even more after the expiration of federal assistance programs in the CARES Act. And Senate Republicans and the White House have refused to advance multiple relief measures passed by the Democrat-controlled House. This is Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking Friday on the House floor after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent the Senate home for Thanksgiving without finalizing a coronavirus relief bill.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Our country is going hungry on the week before Thanksgiving, and the Senate broke. I don’t care what party you are. It is an abandonment of our responsibilities as elected officials who are charged with acting in the public trust.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United Nations World Food Programme predicts acute hunger could affect 270 million people worldwide by the end of 2020 — an 82% increase since the start of the pandemic — amidst the economic fallout from pandemic-related layoffs and less money being sent home by relatives working in wealthier countries, like the United States.
For more, we’re joined by Raj Patel, award-winning author, filmmaker, co-host of the food politics podcast The Secret Ingredient. His books include Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. He teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, is currently completing a documentary project about the global food system.
Raj, it’s great to have you back again. I was looking at the food lines across the country, pictures of food lines near — not so far from you. In Arlington, Texas, there was a car food line that went on for miles. Four in 10 people in this country who are on these food lines say they’ve never been on a food line before. Talk about what this country is facing, and then talk about the world.
RAJ PATEL: Well, thank you, Amy and Juan. It’s great to be back.
I think it’s important — as we think about the horror and the indignity that those clips and what we’re seeing represent, it’s important to remember the context that happened before COVID. Before COVID, hunger rates, food insecurity rates in the United States — and when we say “food insecurity,” what we’re talking about is that worry, that experience, that deep concern, the depression, that comes with knowing that your household is not going to have enough food to be able to put on the table for everyone, and so maybe you skip a meal. That food insecurity was bad enough in the United States. It’s been hovering around 13% of households for the past couple of decades. During the Great Recession, it surged to 16%, you know, by 50 million Americans, behind that recession. And then it gradually sort of fell away to around about 10% last year; about 35 million Americans were struggling with food insecurity — which isn’t great. Already, that shows the kinds of systemic betrayal that counts as business as usual in the United States.
But what COVID has done is, effectively, target — and we always talk about COVID as being the great unveiling of the inequalities in America. But the inequalities really strike deep in the food system because seven out of the 10 worst-paying jobs in America are jobs in the food system. And when we have the recession accompanying COVID really striking at the food system and the food service jobs, the people in the frontlines, who are described as essential workers, are also the people who are more likely to be exposed to COVID and also more likely to be in precarious and low-wage work.
And so, what we’re seeing, certainly here in Texas, where we are seeing these apocalyptic lines, you know, when I volunteer at the food bank, I mean, it’s desperation, is what you see. And the long story here is the continuing kind of war on the American working class. But when you hear about 40% of American households experiencing food insecurity of some kind, that’s a new record, and it’s a very dark one to be breaking. And as you say, you know, this is particularly targeting — it deeply affects households where there are children, low-income households — 50% of low-income households with children have experienced some sort of decline in income, and we’re seeing particularly low-income households of people of color struggling with hunger. And —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Raj —
RAJ PATEL: Sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you: Why is it, as you mentioned, that so many of our lowest-paying jobs are in the food industry, from those who pick our crops to those who butcher and pack the meats that the public eats, to those who serve the food? Why have we gotten to this situation?
RAJ PATEL: Well, Juan, in a word, the answer is colonialism. This settler colony that we find ourselves in, the United States, was founded on a certain kind of agricultural colonialism, that involved first the enslavement and occupation and genocide of Indigenous people and then the enslavement of people from Africa. And the long history of the United States is about a long history of the rebellion of people who have been enslaved and whose lands have been colonized.
But what we see throughout early and more recent U.S. history is that workers in the food system are disenfranchised — you know, prevented from unionizing, for example — in ways that are deep and systemic. And so, if you look, for example, at who the farmers in the United States are, the breakdown is that well over 90% of the farmers and farm supervisors are white. And there’s a cadence of the way that work in the food system, which was often done by people of color, Black people, enslaved people, and also now is done disproportionately by women — all of those figure in the long history of the way in which the United States has militated against workers in those professions from organizing and from asserting their power.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — as we’re moving from the Trump administration into the incoming Biden administration, there is discussion that one of the leading contenders for the secretary of Department of Agriculture, which executes food and foreign policy in this country, could be Heidi Heitkamp. I’m wondering your concerns about that possible nomination.
RAJ PATEL: Well, as you were saying at the top of the hour, when you were listing Biden’s current appointees, there’s a couple of possible glimmers of hope, if you’re feeling particularly optimistic. But in general, this is a continuation of the neoliberal run of the Obama era.
And of Heidi Heitkamp, I think the most astute analysis comes from my colleague Navina Khanna, who is the co-founder and director of the HEAL Food Alliance. And Navina says of Heidi Heitkamp, she’s so far right, she was on Trump’s list.
And, you know, I mean, within the Democratic Party at the moment, there’s a discussion around whether to lean back into the era in which Tom Vilsack was secretary of agriculture, and essentially sort continue the long betrayal of farmers that the Democrats have been involved in really since before NAFTA, or whether to try a different candidate. And the American Federation of Teachers and the Food and Commercial Workers union, for example, came out recently in support of Marcia Fudge, the congresswoman from Ohio’s 11th District, who offers a very different kind of opportunity for the United States Department of Agriculture that isn’t about cleaving to the agribusiness monopolies that have bankrolled and supported the USDA for a while, but rather to understand that we need a transformation both in the way food is grown and to support the eating of food. I mean, most of the USDA budget goes to things like SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
So, I think that there is a fight in the Democratic Party at the moment. Heidi Heitkamp, were she to become secretary of agriculture, would signal, I think, the way in which Biden and the Biden administration was really sticking to neoliberal business as usual.
AMY GOODMAN: Raj, one of the issues you’ve raised is who gets the vaccine. We’ve been having a lot of these discussions, who gets access to these vaccines that are being developed in the world. And you’ve made the point that essential workers, not just nurses, doctors, hospital staff, but, for example, food workers and pickers in California, they, too, should have the first access.
RAJ PATEL: And I agree with me, absolutely. The workers on the frontline are precisely the workers who are at the frontlines of the food system.
But I do want to make a point about how this is an international crisis, and one that — where the hunger in the United States is bad, the hunger outside the United States is worse. And the hunger outside the United States is because of U.S. policy, of U.S. trade policy, of U.S. policy around intellectual property rights, for example, at the World Trade Organization.
Now, if we are to have anything approaching a just recovery, then let’s link these issues and understand that the reason that frontline workers in the United States are often people of color and there’s a long history of undocumented workers being part of the U.S. food system is because of U.S. trade policy. And if we are to move out of the COVID era with anything approaching justice, then not only must frontline workers in the United States be vaccinated, if and only if it is safe, but also the U.S. needs to stop making the rest of the world hungry through its food policy. And that’s in addition, of course, to recognizing the U.S. needs to be lifting the kinds of restrictions it fought for at that World Trade Organization around intellectual property rights, so that countries can become powerful enough to be able to not only know the contents of the vaccine, but also the production and processes required to be able to make it effectively and safely.
But I think the important point here is to recognize that the U.S. is not an island, that the world suffers not alongside the United States, but because of it, and that if we are interested in moving out of the COVID era, then understanding the frontline workers, whether in meatpacking plants in the United States or sending remittances home elsewhere in the Global South to other countries in the Global South, are all affected by U.S. policy, and that policy must change.
AMY GOODMAN: Raj, we want to thank you for being with us, but we’re going to be going back to you soon to have this discussion as this problem only worsens in the United States and around the world. Raj Patel, award-winning author, co-host of the food politics podcast The Secret Ingredient, among his books, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. And we’re going to stay on the world’s food system.