A hungry America needs new food for thought

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How could it be that hunger at home in the United States and global food poverty – issues once viewed as separate problems – are now conjoined in a desperate crisis? It is hard to contemplate so many empty plates.

President Biden’s decision to issue an executive order last week asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase food stamp benefits and provide more nutrition to children is a painful reminder of how America has enjoined the global hunger movement as both participant and leader. Census data show that 30 million American households reported periods of not having enough to eat last month, a sharp jump from before the coronavirus pandemic.

Our nation was in the midst of a hunger crisis long before the pandemic. But COVID-19 has caused far more families to go hungry, with one in seven households and more than one in five Black and Latino households unable to get enough food to eat.

According to Feeding America, one of the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organizations, of the 50 million people in the United States likely to experience food insecurity during the pandemic, 17 million are children. One in five children go to bed hungry and lacking access to the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis.

We are not alone in experiencing the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains and humanitarian access to food supplies. The virus threatens to double the number of severely hungry people across the globe this year to 270 million.  

Sadder still is that the pandemic threatened progress on ending global hunger by 2030, a promise made by all United Nations members and one that will be tough to accomplish. The World Bank expects the COVID-19-induced new poor in 2020 to rise to between 119 million and 124 million.

A new administration brings energy and passion to addressing food security and can reinvigorate our public diplomacy efforts if we learn the lessons of the past and apply them to the current crisis.

During the Obama administration, progress was made to engage American chefs and their international counterparts in global food diplomacy. Gastro-diplomacy, or citizen food diplomacy, became one of the tools for building a consensus around the importance of food both nutritionally and culturally. Citizens joined the front line for feeding communities. Local kitchens started operating to feed the hungry. Chefs converted their restaurants into food distribution centers and pivoted from their kitchens to the streets as activists for food security.

We see it today in action. Chef and humanitarian Jose Andres noted that “the best safety net that America can build is know-how: How not only America, but every country can feed itself.” And those less famous than Andres are working in mobile trucks, at food banks and bakeries and across the country to feed America.

Now we must unite with other global efforts that are also helping those affected around the globe to prevent hunger. We have to make progress at home and overseas, underscoring the power and the resilience of the United States in times of crisis. We have to expand food security work and culinary diplomacy with new programs and ideas. We have to join the social gastronomy movement that is in full gear.

If we address the dire food situation, including the impact of climate change on food and the risks of food deficits causing more migration and conflict, everyone benefits.

We truly have hit a fork in the road. It’s time for bold action to devise a food strategy that brings everyone together around a common table to re-think the most basic issue of food.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and an adjunct professor at American University. Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary for public diplomacy.

Tags Biden; Joe Biden; coronavirus Feeding America Food and drink Food bank Food security Global Hunger Index hunger Hunger in the United States U.S. Department of Agriculture

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