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Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Caela O’Connell is an assistant professor of anthropology and the environment, ecology and energy program at UNC-Chapel Hill. She studies water conservation, sustainable food systems and disaster recovery. Her research focuses on social and environmental interdependence. She will discuss why food has become such a topic of focus during the COVID-19 pandemic and why it is essential to consider underlying vulnerabilities when assessing the impacts of the pandemic and planning for recovery. She provides recommendations for what actions individuals, local and state governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations can do to keep contribute to current food insecurity needs and envisioning sustainable recovery for North Carolinians.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Caela O’Connell: Disaster & Food

Food is everywhere right now! All aspects of food — eating food, preparing it, growing it and how our food moves across what researchers call a commodity chain, from farms-to-stores and restaurants-to-your-plate. Food has become an obsession during the pandemic. You cannot read the news or talk to a friend without encountering stories about essential agricultural and grocery workers, “quarantine cooking,” or tips and anxieties over food access and insecurity. As we begin to imagine what a post-pandemic world will look like, many people ask about restaurants and whether dining together will be safe.

You may find yourself wondering why is food on everyone’s mind, or how might our food systems change after the COVID-19 pandemic? To answer these questions, let’s talk about some key takeaways from disaster and food studies in anthropology.

Before we dig into food and disaster, I have a small but important distinction to make. When scientists talk about disasters, we aren’t talking about hurricanes or tornadoes, we call such events natural hazards because they occur naturally and don’t always create a problem. A disaster, on the other hand, is the harm, damage and loss of life caused by natural hazards and human accidents. Disasters can be sudden, like an earthquake, or slow, like a drought or our current pandemic, but they all impact people and our environments in severe ways.

Food is at the heart of our physical wellbeing and our emotional wellbeing. In anthropology, we call this a bio-cultural perspective.

On the bio-side of this perspective, we investigate the caloric needs, nutrition and how food production and how the types of foods we eat are linked to the health and types of environments we live in and our impacts on them. On the day-to-day, this is most often on your mind in terms of trying to eat healthy, what may be in season for your area and how your movement shapes your nutritional needs. With the pandemic, many people are experiencing changes in their eating habits, such as disrupting a routine of eating fresh fruit every day. These disruptions change how your body feels and that connects to mood, energy, depression, etc. Disasters can also disrupt the availability of food on the bio-side damage food sources.

On the cultural-side of a biocultural perspective, we study what food means — on a cultural and individual level. Food is deeply personal. The types of food you eat, are knowledgeable about and prefer can be linked to where and how you grew up, the types of experiences you’ve pursued and your level of comfort and knowledge in preparing food in the kitchen. Food carries emotional ties through flavor, smell and experience. We use food to connect. Such as: by sharing a meal, the concept of breaking bread can be found in ideas around hospitality, religious beliefs and peacemaking across many cultures. We use food to build commonality even over something as simple as agreeing which BBQ sauce is better: a tangy vinegar-based Carolina style vs. sweet tomato- based Memphis style BBQ. We also use food to determine difference when you have conflicting food preferences, values or practices such as whether or not you eat meat. In the aftermath of a disasters it can be difficult or impossible to cook food in your own home for weeks or even months or years, making it hard to feel safe or make those dishes that bring you or your family comfort.

So, we can summarize by saying that food is biocultural because we depend on it to give us nourishment and we use it to provide a sense of comfort and identity to those we care for through cooking, eating and sharing.

We are not all having the same pandemic experience. Although the adage “disaster is a great equalizer” is often repeated during hard times — in part to emphasize very real feelings of unity — one of the most important things we know from research is that the impacts of disaster do not impact people equally. Not at all. In fact, studies show that underlying vulnerabilities, such as age, health, belonging to a marginalized community or group, poverty, citizenship status and location all shape differences in how people within the same disaster experience it differently. Sure, everyone living in a certain location might be hit by the same hurricane, but the quality of their house, the amount of saving in their bank accounts, the stage of life they are in (such as having young children or being retired) and their health are all different. The effect of the hurricane, and the options available to recover will in part be shaped by underlying differences. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception, some people are more vulnerable to the virus itself, and some people are more vulnerable to the economic impacts of social distancing.

When you consider the vast difference in the experiences that people are having even here in North Carolina, and the biocultural importance of food for all people, we can see why food is on everyone’s mind right now. Some people are struggling to get enough to eat, before the pandemic, one in five children in North Carolina were considered food insecure and that number has increased, while farmers are dumping an unprecedented and heart breaking quantities of fresh produce, milk and eggs because they have lost their buyers as restaurants shut down. Some families have enough food right now, but the hoarding and limited availability of some foods in stores means they worry that they won’t have enough soon, or they are stressed that they will get sick grocery shopping or infect a loved one. Finally, many of us are struggling with preparing foods that are unfamiliar, missing ingredients for birthday cakes and other important life events, or the social limitations and or not being able to connect with others by taking food or sharing meals in the same ways.

Food is a powerful source of connection. During this pandemic, we are using these food differences to talk about and reflect our varied pandemic experiences, recognizing vulnerability and privilege, and to connect. People are reaching out to exchange information, sharing missing ingredients with neighbors in creative and safe ways and organizing shopping trips for those who are high risk. Friends and families are sharing digital dinners over video conferencing and documenting their cooking fails for others to see. Local farmers with the capacity to make home deliveries have paired with farmers who have fresh produce but no way to transport them. My students built a website that lists many of the amazing efforts surrounding food during this pandemic such as Durham FEAST and TABLE — organizations that rely on volunteers to share food with families at risk for hunger. Check out Food for U (NC) to find these and many other resources for volunteering, food access, recipes and accurate research and news for North Carolina communities. If you can, I encourage you to answer next time you see a request on your neighborhood listserv, or to reach out to any of the organizations listed on at Food for U (NC).

The second question I raised at the beginning of this podcast was “how might our food systems change after the COVID-19 pandemic?” This is the question that is on my mind a lot these days. The question of change taps into an area of debate in disaster research — do we actually change after a major crisis, and if so, why? After a major disruption to life, it is exciting to imagine that the return to normal offers a chance to right known problems and “build back better” but evidence shows that measuring lasting change is difficult to do and results are often mixed. The pressure to return to “normal life” and focus on day-to-day needs like restoring household income or getting a business open again tends to restrict our abilities to make major changes on our own. Yet, we also have evidence that shows a break in routine, such as months of sheltering in place, does offer the opportunity to imagine what could be different. As we wonder if, and how, our food systems might change in the wake of Coronavirus, here are some points to consider:

  • We look to individual behavior as indicators of change, but behavior is not easily linked to belief or desire.
  • Change after a disaster or crisis is driven by institutions, policies, social movements, businesses and infrastructure that facilitate and support change with financial, social and organizational resources.
  • Change is a process, not an individual event, and it requires coordination and receptivity.

In conclusion, I ask you to reflect from your own position — whether you are a civic employee, head of an NGO, stay-at-home caregiver, student or CEO — as a person who eats, purchases and prepares food— please reflect on what could change.

  • What are changes that you can imagine?
  • What would you like to avoid if and when another crisis strikes?
  • What are known problems that you think we could take care of as we work to recover from?
  • Are there several organizations or initiatives working toward similar goals that would benefit from coordination?

Now, we know that change does not happen without connecting it to wider support and infrastructure. The final step is to reach out to the right people and organizations (this could be a grocery chain, local government, emergency management planners, an NGO or a business). Change grows from demonstrated interest, support and coordination. By reaching out and sharing your ideas (big or small!), you are moving from the individual to the community level scale and this gives them a chance to become a goal or consideration for change as we recover. Nothing will have more impact on if and how we change than making the effort to identify and plan for it right now.


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