Category Archives: Food security

The Coronavirus Forces Us to Fix the Flaws of our Food-Supply System

By Randy Rosenthal

Embed from Getty Images

The coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system in at least two ways. One is by compelling retail food staff–grocery workers and delivery “shoppers”–to put their health at risk. The other is the widespread destruction of fresh food.

Next to the fragility of the medical industry, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system—especially the vulnerability of the people who make it possible. Grocery-store workers and delivery “shoppers” in particular have found themselves taking on the first-responder risks of doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Dozens have died of COVID-19, and thousands have gotten sick. Understandably, they’re afraid to go to work. But they have to, because in order for the rest of us to eat, someone must deliver food to grocery stores, and someone must stock the shelves.

Many grocery stores have automated checkouts, but most still have clerks. And so while many of us can work from home and observe physical distancing guidelines, grocery-store workers are forced to come in proximity with hundreds of people a day. Due to this sudden and dramatic uptick in risk, the lack of safety and security that grocery companies provide their workers has become starkly apparent.

Soon after governors announced stay-at-home orders in March, supermarket workers and “shoppers” began to protest the dangerous conditions they face and the lack of health support available to them. Most live paycheck to paycheck, and cannot afford to miss work, especially because most supermarkets do not provide paid sick leave. And now workers had to expose themselves to getting sick from the coronavirus, a risk that is exacerbated by the failure of supermarkets to provide basic protective personal equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and sanitizer.

Whole Foods particularly has come into focus for its poor treatment of its workers. As one worker reported to Oxfam America, Whole Foods did not provide PPE and actually encouraged workers to buy their own. He also reported that even if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the store does not close to get cleaned. Nor is the information shared with other employees with whom the infected worker may have come in contact. This creates a frightening, dangerous working environment that has many grocery workers freaked out.

Whole Foods “shoppers” who deliver for Amazon Prime, as well as Instacart “shoppers,” are also on the front lines, as they deliver groceries so that we don’t have to leave our homes to get them. In normal times, these “shoppers” provide a convenience for anyone too busy or too lazy to shop for themselves. Now they are risking their lives—and the lives of anyone they come in contact with—so that we don’t have to go to the market.

In the context of this pandemic, this service is what economics calls a “positive externality,” which is when someone’s private behavior leads to broader social benefits. Here, “shoppers” for Instacart and Amazon reduce the need for people to congregate, and are therefore lowering the systematic risk of COVID-19 for everyone, allowing society to flatten the curve of infection. The grocery-delivery business is booming, with Instacart saying they’ll immensely expand their workforce, by adding 300,000 shoppers. But “shoppers,” too, have complained that they’re not provided with basic protective gear that helps keep them safe, such as hand sanitizer and masks.

All this is why many organizations like Oxfam have launched campaigns demanding that grocery stores act to support their workers. First, workers are demanding paid sick leave. Recent legislation has made paid sick leave mandatory, but only for businesses with 500 or fewer employees, leaving companies like Amazon and Whole Foods off the hook. Governments are currently trying to address this loophole, and ensure that anyone working an essential business is provided with two weeks paid sick leave, if they either test positive for COVID-19 or have to quarantine. This is a decent start, but let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Paid sick leave is an intrinsic aspect of any developed nation, and so perhaps the pandemic will force the US to catch up and leave this legislation in place.

Supermarket workers are also demanding hazard pay, which is an increase in their hourly wage to account for the increased risk. This makes sense economically. The demand for such workers has surged; their value should rise accordingly. Stores have responded with a temporary wage increase; they know that without their workers, they won’t have a business and continue making money hand-over-fist. And yet many workers still feel that the proposed $13-per-hour raise is not worth their life.

Another primary complaint is that customers are not taking care to protect the health of workers by observing physical distancing rules, and generally trying to ensure a sanitized working environment—just this week, a grocery store worker shamed my housemate for bringing a reusable bag. As a result, many grocery stores now have a limit on the number of customers allowed in a store at a given time, with signs specifying six feet of spacing.

Some stores have put up plexiglass barricades to protect the checkout clerks, and some have provided free gloves and masks. But not all have done so, and so there needs to be legislative action to enforce these safety precautions for workers across the country. Otherwise, it will be up to the managers of individual stores to make the call.

The coronavirus has forced law-makers and company owners to take a more active, broader role in safeguarding the health and economic security of workers, at least temporarily, but as the effects ripple out, the pandemic has exposed another fatal flaw of our food-delivery system: the factory-farm, market-based supply of food production.

On the one hand, the supply of meat is suddenly in peril, as large, consolidated meat-processing plants in the Midwest and South have been forced to shut due to a high number of coronavirus cases among their workers. And on the other hand, with restaurants, cafes, and schools closed down, demand for milk, eggs, vegetables, and grains across the board has plummeted. As a result, farmers have destroyed an immense percentage of their own products, as The New York Times recently reported. Tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, destroying the crops. About 5% of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped into lagoons and manure pits, an amount that can double as the shut-down continues. And as most people don’t make onion rings or French fries at home (I haven’t had fries for about a month!), millions of pounds of onions and potatoes are being buried in ditches, left to rot.

In normal times, many people in the world are going hungry, and millions struggle to buy food. But with the millions of people who have lost their jobs, global hunger will rise, and putting food on the table will be even more difficult. That’s why this widespread destruction of fresh food is particularly terrible.

Yes, farmers say they have donated surpluses to food banks, but without the usual delivery chains, they simply do not know what to do with their food. Their machines, they explain, are geared to package food for restaurants, in large containers, not the smaller packages for retail at grocery stories. And so, because of this food supply-chain flaw, they simply throw the food away.

Food waste is a normal part of our market-based system, but the pandemic has magnified how abominable of a waste it is. Just as the coronavirus has forced us to address the safety and economic security of grocery-store workers, it should also force us to rectify the unsustainable flaws of our market-based food-supply system as a whole. In other words, food and health are rights, not commodities.

As my colleague Keith Hartwig, an artist, designer, and researcher working in the fields of Science and Technology Studies, wrote on Instagram in response to this Times report, “We have to go deeper, to reveal what food waste and these dystopian images signify: a deeply flawed food system built on economic subsidies, models of monoculture and overproduction, unfair and unstable global trade polices and labor practices, decades of economic disparity and social injustice, unequal access to and distribution of food resources, failed urban planning, and much much more.”

At the end of his post, Hartwig asks, “Will we emerge from this and revert to the old normal, or will we emerge from this ready to create a new normal? A normal no longer rooted in greed, but a normal rooted in equity fairness, resilience, foresight, and sustainability.”

Before the pandemic, it would have been highly unlikely that we would be able to create this new normal of food justice. But now is a time not only of great challenge, but of opportunity for systemic change. And if we want to ensure the next pandemic doesn’t cause a similar catastrophe, we’d be wise to fix the exposed flaws of our food-supply system, from production to delivery, so that it prioritizes health and sustainability.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

 

 

 

Rice Support for Girl Students in Cambodia

By BGR Staff

Through its partnership with Lotus Outreach International, BGR is helping provide poor girls in Cambodia–and their families–with rice support, thereby enabling them to continue their education through high school and even to pursue university degrees.

Lotus Outreach International (LOI), a trusted BGR partner since 2009, works to improve the lives of women and girls in Cambodia and India through initiatives that increase girls’ access to education, provide counseling and safe havens for victims of trafficking and domestic violence, and support women’s economic empowerment through skills training and other programs.

A foundation of LOI’s education programs is its policy of providing rice to impoverished female students and young children in rural Cambodia. This policy ensures reliable nourishment for people persistently affected by food insecurity while also freeing up limited familial resources for the girls’ education. Without such rice support, many of these young girls would need to work to support their families rather than complete their studies. The rice often feeds the girls’ parents and siblings as well, and the cost savings can benefit entire families, who may be able to invest a greater portion of their earnings into a farm or other business.

BGR has funded rice support for Lotus Outreach’s GATE scholarship program since we first made contact in 2009, and for the CATALYST program since it was introduced as a sequel to the GATE program. GATE (an acronym meaning “Girls Access To Education”) offers educational scholarships to girls in primary and secondary school. CATALYST, also supported by a grant from BGR, builds on this foundation by helping girls pursue higher education at universities and vocational training institutes across Cambodia. All participants in these programs commit to attending school for the duration of the year.

Last year, the BGR grant was expanded to support not only the female students in the GATE and CATALYST scholarship programs but also the families of 301 kindergarten students.

The distribution of rice is implemented through local organizations. The kindergarten students’ rice-support program is carried out in partnership with Khemara, Cambodia’s first locally founded and operated NGO, which works to support the health, education, and welfare of Cambodian women and children. The GATE rice-support program is carried out through the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in cooperation with Local Education Working Groups in the students’ villages. These groups, consisting of teachers, parents, government officials, and other community volunteers, then deliver the rice directly to the recipients. The CATALYST program’s rice distribution is carried out by LOI staff.

In all, in the 2018–19 grant cycle, the rice support program distributed nearly 60 tons of rice to 464 students and their families, feeding a total of 1,067 people.

Younger students in class

Twenty-year-old Hao Pheara is the oldest of six children in an impoverished family in Soth Nikum district in Siem Reap. Her mother, who is herself illiterate, prioritized her daughter’s education, and so Pheara helped the family make ends meet. Working as a laborer, carrying and transporting bricks, in addition to her schooling, she struggled academically and considered dropping out.

After joining the GATE scholarship program Pheara was able to focus her attention on her schooling. In addition to rice support, the scholarship also provided her with a new bike, school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and other necessities, and a monthly stipend. Her grades improved and she has begun to imagine a hopeful future in business. “My family is very happy because of the support from the program, which is crucially important to reduce the financial burden of my education and livelihood,” she said.

Lunh Chainey is a twelfth-grade student in LOI’s GATE program and a recipient of BGR-funded rice support. Her father is a food vendor and her mother raises small livestock at home. Before she joined the scholarship and rice-support programs, the costs of education meant that her family often ate only two meals a day. “Our life is difficult; we have to devote everything to the children to secure their future, so they don’t have to suffer as we have,” her mother, Khim Keng, said. The rice-support program ensured that the entire family would have three daily meals.

In a conversation during her twelfth-grade year, Chainey told an interviewer, “In terms of academics, I am between fifth and eighth in my class of 50 students, and I’m 80 percent confident of passing my year 12.” Indeed, a few months later she reported that she had not only successfully graduated but had also secured a coveted seat at a premier IT institute in Phnom Penh, a pathway to a career in the high-growth technology sector.

Hong Rina is 17 and a tenth-grader. The second of seven children, she lives with her mother and five of her siblings in a small room on the outskirts of Phnom Penh City. Her father and older brother live elsewhere as they work to support the family and send the younger children to school. “Previously, it was hard for me to stay in school. I always wanted to leave school to work like my brother, but my parents didn’t allow me to drop out,” she said. She attended extra classes, but couldn’t concentrate well because she was always worried about her family’s struggles.

Since the sixth grade Rina has participated in LOI’s GATE scholarship and rice-support programs. She said, “The monthly rice support is a big support for my family as a whole. It helps to cover the daily consumption of every member of my household. Staff from the scholarship program and teachers often visit my home, to meet with my mother and encourage her to follow up on my study. They also check on my study performance and motivate me to go to school.”

Today Rina attends extra classes and volunteers in her community as leader of a Red Cross group at her school. She said, “I want to pursue my study to university. In the future, I want to become a doctor or have a good job that can help my family and support my six siblings.”

This article is based on reporting by Lotus Outreach staff.

Promoting a Food-Sovereign City in Detroit

By Patricia Brick

This year Buddhist Global Relief’s partner Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) celebrated its sixth anniversary of supporting gardeners and creating food distribution pathways to ensure as many Detroit residents as possible have access to nutritious locally grown fruits and vegetables.

With a median household income below $31,000, nearly 38 percent of Detroit residents live below the poverty line, and 42 percent of households rely on food assistance programs to feed their families. KGD was founded to promote a food-sovereign city, in which all Detroit residents have access to healthy, sustainably cultivated food grown by Detroiters within the city limits. Through the long-standing Garden Resource Program, founded in 2003, KGD provides seeds, transplants, and resources to support Detroiters in growing their own food gardens and securing access to fresh, low-cost vegetables.
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Walk to Feed the Hungry in Uganda

By BGR Staff

Bhante Buddharakkhita in front of the temple

On August 18th, the Uganda Buddhist Centre (UBC) in Entebbe, Uganda, held a solidarity “Walk to Feed the Hungry,” the third such walk organized by the center. The walk was led by Ven. Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Uganda monk who is the founder of the center and a long-time member of BGR’s advisory council.  The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness of hunger and malnutrition as a pressing issue both for Ugandans and for vulnerable communities around the world. Continue reading

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well. Continue reading

Improving Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health in Kenya

By Randy Rosenthal

BGR has partnered with Helen Keller International to strengthen the health system and reduce maternal and child mortality in densely-populated Kakamega County, in western Kenya.

Malnutrition is a major problem in Kenya, where nearly half of the population lives in poverty. That’s why Buddhist Global Relief has partnered with Helen Keller International on a three-year project to improve access, delivery, and utilization of essential nutrition-related services in Kenya. HKI is working with the Kenyan Ministry of Health and Action Against Hunger (AAH) to address Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) and to combat poor nutrition outcomes in five Kenyan counties. BGR is supporting HKI’s ambitious effort to strengthen the health system and reduce maternal and child mortality in densely-populated Kakamega County, in western Kenya. The grant from BGR sustains HKI’s Kakamega program in its entirety. Continue reading

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World

By David Braughton

In September, 2015, United Nations members participating in a summit on sustainable development adopted a bold and far-reaching agenda whose goal was nothing less than the promotion of prosperity and the elimination of global poverty and hunger by 2030.

This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognize that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. (Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Sustainability Summit, September 25, 2015)

This year, as last, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, issued a report documenting progress towards the 2030 goal.  This year’s report,  The State of Nutrition and Food Security in the World: Building Climate Resilience for Food Security and Nutrition, provides an overview of hunger and malnutrition from two perspectives: the prevalence of undernutrition (a statistical estimate of chronic hunger within a population) and a more subjective accounting of food insecurity using a survey called the Food Insecurity Scale.  The report goes on to examine the impact of global warming and climate change as a leading contributor of increased hunger, particularly in Africa and South America.

In this and future articles, we’ll share findings from the FOA report, examine hunger’s effect on kids and pregnant women, and delve further into how climate change is contributing to the reversal of a ten-year decline in the number of hungry people worldwide. Finally, we will look at some of the countries where BGR is sponsoring projects to see how their people are doing and why these projects are so essential. Continue reading