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Amid COVID-19, US should embrace the right to food

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Foodbank lines stretching for miles along American roadways. Millions of children left hungry by lags in federal emergency food assistance. Elected officials are blocking proposals to increase spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. These are among the perverse indicators of a society that regards food as a commodity.

COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated food insecurity in the U.S. because millions of people can no longer afford to feed themselves or their families. Malnutrition, as a result of chronic food insecurity, weakens the body’s defense against disease and may heighten the risk of complications or death from COVID-19

Our collective ability and willingness to comprehensively and swiftly address food insecurity in the U.S. is not simply a matter of making sure every person is fed. It is a matter of ensuring our nation’s public health, our ultimate success in overcoming COVID-19, and our preparedness for combatting any future pandemics. This requires that we transform food from its status as a commodity to becoming a universal human right held by all citizens and non-citizens in the U.S.

The right to food was declared binding international law in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights more than 50 years ago. Notably, the U.S. is one of two nations that has not agreed to recognize this right and repeatedly votes against the annual Right to Food Resolution in the U.N. General Assembly, “usually as the sole dissenter.”

Yet what would happen if we decoupled food from private interests and reclaimed food and food systems as public goods? Funding for SNAP would not be disputed or put under constant threat each time Congress goes into session. The stigma surrounding the use of public assistance would dissipate because everyone would qualify. 

Most importantly, we could comprehensively eradicate food insecurity as a painful lived experience and public health threat that disproportionately afflicts the poor and marginalized. We wouldn’t have to worry that one in four children were going to face hunger this year. We wouldn’t lose over $160 billion — by conservative estimates — in increased medical care expenses, hospitalizations, lost educational attainment and worker productivity, and investment burden into the emergency food system. And as I argue in “The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders,” we wouldn’t add undue burdens to low-income women and families. 

Prioritizing the right to food would also empower us to take action on environmental threats to our food supply, including climate change, to restore farming as a viable and rewarding livelihood, to pay all food system workers livable wages, and to grant asylum to those who are fleeing conditions of hunger or food insecurity.

The human right to food eschews the logic that food is something that can be egregiously profited from. It is high time that our political leaders end protections for corporate shareholders and CEOs. They have robbed our food and food systems while depriving millions of the right to food and sentencing them to hunger.

As we stand at this historical crossroads that COVID-19 has laid bare for us, we need a progressive restructuring of the safety net that centers the right to food. As the food is interwoven with all aspects of our lives, making such changes first to our food systems will have ripple effects on how we distribute resources and approach essential activities and services such as work, health care, child care, education, housing, and environmental protection.

Megan A. Carney is an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. She is the author of “The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders” and Director of the U.A. Center for Regional Food Studies. Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.

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