The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems worldwide, posing many challenges for cities and local governments dealing with rapid changes in food supply and affordability. In this article myself and Esther Ngumbi, assistant professor of entomology at University of Illinois, we explain why the nutrition security of billions of people is at increased risk and what corrective policies must be put in place now to prevent food shortages.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the fragility of the world’s food system. The primary issue to date has been the disruption of food supply and affordability rather than food shortages. But if corrective policies are not put in place, today’s restrictions may cause tomorrow’s food shortages.
In countries like the USA, Canada and the UK, where about half of the nation's food is typically consumed in group settings like restaurants and schools, COVID-19-related closures have forced farmers to dump unsold food—even as millions are food insecure and hungry. Equally affected are urban food systems in crowded cities and urban slums in the developing countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Ecuador, and other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.
Of course, the food supply problem did not start in the cities. Across the globe, harvests are going to waste because laborers are banned from working, cannot travel to or from farms and markets, or do not want to work for fear of catching the virus. In some developing countries, it is difficult for farmers to obtain seeds and fertilizer. In some cases, market closures have deprived farmers of crucial sales opportunities.
Exacerbating the problem, some major food-producing countries have already imposed export bans or quotas in response to the pandemic, as Russia and Kazakhstan have done for grain, and India and Vietnam have done for rice. Such quotas block trade that other countries rely on to feed their people. They also push food prices up. In countries dependent on food imports, such as Somalia and Sudan, which import more than 40 million tons of cereals from around the world, prices could skyrocket because of supply chain disruptions.
The problem of food affordability is particularly dire in cities hit hard by unemployment. With the collapse of the global economy, caused by lockdowns all over the world, millions have nowhere to turn for food as work dries up and jobs evaporate. Even in the United States, two out of five low-income people are struggling to afford enough food for their households. Meanwhile, much of the pain in developing countries is felt by people in the informal work sector, who have minimal or no social support.
The impacts of Covid-19 highlight the need to create an equitable food system that emphasizes innovations for low-income and underserved communities. In cities, these can include changing zoning and tax laws to make it easier to create new grocery stores, farmers' markets, and community gardens. Local governments can also create food policy councils to give residents a voice in how best to improve access to healthy food. Moreover, governments can work with existing urban slums community leadership and nonprofit organizations to safely distribute food ultimately reopen food markets.
In addition, governments should avoid restricting cross-border food trade and support smallholder farmers to enhance their productivity and ability to bring goods to the market—especially large urban markets.
In fact, the disruption caused by this pandemic is already leading to innovation in food distribution systems. Many of these could be carried in to the post-Covid era and include:
The introduction of food thrift stores. All forms of excess food can be channeled to food thrift stores to sell at reduced prices. Under this model excess food that would otherwise go to waste would be delivered directly to these stores. Governments can provide tax credits or other incentives for stores to buy excess production from farmers.
Companies acting independently to purchase food surplus. For example, Kroger recently announced that it would buy excess milk from farmers. Some companies such as AgriMax and City Harvest are implementing similar programs.
Governments can buy surplus products and donate or resell them at cheaper prices. The Agricultural Marketing Service unit of the United States Department of Agriculture purchases domestically produced food that is delivered to schools, food banks, and households. In addition, through its Special Milk Program, the USDA buys milk for school breakfast and lunch programs. This should be ramped up to meet the current needs.
It is clear that recent and disturbing increases in food insecurity are not a result of scarcity, but a matter of logistics. We must address the immediate threat of hunger and food security now, and also take this opportunity to build a more resilient food distribution system that can withstand the next crisis.
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