Food

More Americans couldn’t get enough to eat in 2020 – a change that hit the middle class hardest

by Zheng Tian, Penn State and Stephan J. Goetz, Penn State

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Americans in households with annual incomes from $50,000 to $75,000 experienced the sharpest increase in food insufficiency when the COVID-19 pandemic began – meaning that many people in the middle class didn't have enough to eat at some point within the previous seven days, according to our peer-reviewed study that will soon be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

We also found that food banks, food pantries and similar emergency services helped reduce food insufficiency, especially for middle-income Americans, by the end of 2020.

When we averaged Census Bureau survey data collected after April 23, 2020, we saw that food insufficiency rates rose among Americans at all income levels.

To be sure, Americans in households earning less than $50,000 annually are the most prone to food insufficiency. That remained true during the initial months of the pandemic when places like schools, offices and restaurants remained closed to restrict the spread of COVID-19.

But food insufficiency grew at a high rate for all Americans in households with yearly earnings of up to $75,000 from April to December 2020. The rate rose most sharply – by a half-percentage point from 0.98% to 1.48% – among households with incomes in the $50,000-$75,000 range.

This situation is rare in households with incomes above $150,000. That didn't change during the early months of the pandemic.

Separately, we studied whether the presence of more food banks and similar services made a difference in terms of food insufficiency in a given state. We found that it did, because rates fell the most quickly in states with more of those organizations per 10,000 residents. This was especially true for middle-income households earning from $50,000 to $75,000 annually.

Why it matters

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, there was widespread concern about food-supply disruptions and the possibility that many more people than usual would have trouble getting enough to eat. After millions of workers were laid off due to lockdowns, often on short notice, widely distributed photos of long lines of cars and people awaiting food donations reinforced these fears.

The share of households experiencing food insufficiency subsequently did rise. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that it increased from 9.5% as of April 23, 2020, to 13.4% as of December 21, 2020.

This growth no doubt would have been higher without several short-term policy changes and a series of economic relief and stimulus packages that supplemented U.S. incomes.

Food banks and similar organizations also played a role. They helped provide emergency food aid to at least 60 million Americans in 2020, according to Feeding America, the nation's largest anti-hunger organization.

The middle-income people who sought help from food banks and similar organizations may have turned to them because they were less familiar with government benefits than lower-income people. For example, they may not have known at first how to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

People unaccustomed to needing help making ends meet needed time both to learn about food assistance options available to them, and how to apply, according to news reports. Obtaining emergency food assistance tends to be faster and easier than enrolling in SNAP.

What still isn't known

It remains unclear whether food banks and similar organizations are cost-effective compared to government-run nutrition programs. Because SNAP distributes benefits through a special kind of debit card accepted by a wide array of retailers, administering the program requires little overhead.

What's next

We are currently examining the relationship between food insufficiency and mental health. We will also monitor what happens to food insufficiency rates in late 2021 and in 2022 due to the end of several short-term pandemic-related benefit policies. And we are exploring other factors that could account for disparities in the food insufficiency rates of individual states.

[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]The Conversation

Zheng Tian, Postdoctoral Scholar, Penn State and Stephan J. Goetz, Professor of Agricultural and Regional Economics, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wisconsin school ditches free lunch program to avoid 'spoiling' families

Hundreds of families and educators in Waukesha, Wisconsin are calling on the city's school board to reverse a decision it made earlier this year to opt out of a federal meal program that was introduced at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, offering free food to students regardless of income.

As the Washington Post reported Friday, Waukesha is the only school district in the state to reject funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Seamless Summer Option program, which was praised by economists and beneficiaries alike for destigmatizing the need for public assistance and eliminating red tape.


In previous years the district has participated in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced-price meals to students depending on their families' income and requires parents or guardians to fill out applications for approval.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 36% of Waukesha's 14,000 students qualified for the program. Students who live below the poverty line in the city are disproportionately Black and Latino.

The school board members' stated reasoning for forgoing the universal program ranged from an alleged concern that students who use the National School Lunch Program in future years wouldn't have their applications filled out if the Seamless Summer Option was offered to everyone this year, to a desire to "get back to whatever you want to believe normal means," to some comments that garnered an outraged response from locals as well as social media users.

School board member Karin Rajnicek said families would "become spoiled" if the universal program continued, while Darren Clark, an assistant superintendent in the district, said an "addiction" to the aid could arise in the community.

"You see, the poor kids may become addicted to food if we feed them," tweeted HuffPost journalist Andy Campbell sarcastically.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party called the board's decision—which was made in June and is being discussed on Monday at a meeting following outcry in the community—"a vile attack on our children," particularly children of color.

"The Waukesha School Board's decision isn't just cruel, it's an attempt to punish children from families with lower incomes who are disproportionately Black and brown," said state treasurer Sarah Godlewski.

Following the board's decision in June, hundreds of parents and teachers in the district connected on social media and began a public pressure campaign, calling on the district to offer meals to all children without requiring proof of income.

"We're determined to make Waukesha as good as it can be, starting with something as easy as feeding kids," Dave Drigenberg, a parent in the district, told the Post on Friday.

Biden administration approves the largest increase to food benefits in SNAP program history

With food insecurity already present in the U.S., the coronavirus only worsened the issue nationwide. According to NPR, food insecurity more than doubled due to the economic crisis COVID-19 inflicted, impacting as many as 23% of households this year. Joe Biden and his administration announced changes to the United States' food stamp program and its nutrition standards Monday to address the issue.

The changes will increase average benefits for food stamps in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program by more than 25%. This permanent increase in the levels of assistance is the largest single increase in the program's history. Average monthly per-person benefits will rise from $121 to $157. Starting in October, the changes will be available indefinitely to all 42 million SNAP beneficiaries, The New York Times reported.

"It's in our collective best interest to make sure that we're helping folks through difficult times," Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. According to the Times, enrollment in SNAP has more than doubled since the early 2000s, and about 43% of beneficiaries are children. Throughout the pandemic, people relied on government assistance to feed their families.

Activists noted that previous levels of pre-pandemic SNAP assistance weren't enough for families to survive and be healthy. Many households were forced to choose cheaper, less nutritious options or simply go hungry to have enough food. According to the Times, more than three-quarters of households in the program report using up their benefits in the first half of the monthly cycle.

Additionally, nearly 90% of SNAP recipients report running out of benefits by the end of the month. Advocates say this figure depicts the disconnect between the program calculations and its recipients' lived experience.

"This outmoded food plan has limited SNAP's purchasing power and made unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time it takes to plan and prepare meals, and the constraints faced by time-strapped working families," Lisa Davis, senior vice president of hunger charity Share Our Strength, said. "An updated Thrifty Food Plan would better reflect the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch, and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods."

Benefits are awarded on a sliding scale; the adjustments raise the maximum amount to $835 a month for a family of four, an increase of 21%.

The changes come at a time where multiple coronavirus relief bills will be ending. But while coronavirus relief bills increased the number of people receiving the maximum amount of benefits, they did not expand SNAP funding for the 40% of recipients who already qualified for this maximum, The Washington Post reported.

Monday's announced revisions come under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Thrifty Food Plan, a list of 58 food groups the government uses to estimate the cost of an economical and nutritious diet. Vilsack noted that changes to the algorithm were needed since families now have different consumption patterns than when the program was last updated. The program was last updated in 2006. Before that, it relied on data from 1999.

They follow a law passed by Congress in 2018 that ordered the Agriculture Department to complete a program review within four years. In his first month of office, Biden told the department to speed up the process so that benefits "reflect the true cost of a basic healthy diet."

"We know this is a program that reduces poverty, we know this is a program that improves health outcomes for kids, we know based on the data that it also results in better educational achievement because kids are fed," Vilsack said.

The new plan will increase the program's costs by about $20 billion a year, Vilsack confirmed. He added that the program's $79 billion annual costs would help "stabilize our democracy."

Increasing SNAP benefits not only works to end national hunger but severely impacts the overall health of children. Balanced nutrition is proven to improve testing scores and lower hospital admissions and other troubles children face.

"Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment," Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health, said. "The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities."

Why we should change how we talk about nonhuman animals

Happy has to be one of the most ironic names for an Asian elephant whose living conditions have prompted groundbreaking legal action on her behalf. Her advocates are certain that she is not happy at all and are seeking to free her from her current confines.

Happy was born in the wild but was captured as a calf in the early 1970s. She ended up at the Bronx Zoo in New York City a few years later, where she's been ever since.

Given what we know about how physically and psychologically detrimental captivity is for elephants and how vastly different their lives are in the wild, it's virtually impossible to draw the conclusion that Happy is content at all after enduring decades of confinement that include years of isolation.

We also know that she's a sentient being, which means she is self-aware—in 2006 she became the first elephant ever documented to pass the "mirror self-recognition test"—and she's the first elephant to be considered in court for legal personhood under a writ of habeas corpus.

Her lawyers at the Nonhuman Rights Project argue that Happy possesses such complex cognitive, emotional and social abilities and deserves fundamental rights to "bodily liberty" and "bodily integrity"—something we are automatically granted just by virtue of being born human.

If successful, her liberation would be a landmark step toward breaking down the legal wall that separates humans from nonhuman animals. Yet nonhuman animals still remain behind a wall of our speciesist perception, which also desperately needs to change.

Nonhuman animals value their own lives, have their own interests and experience a range of emotions similar to our own that run the gamut from joy and fear to pain, anger, sadness, stress and grief; they have their own cultures and dialects; they play, work cooperatively and use tools; they remember and plan for the future; they love, form long-lasting bonds and show empathy. The conclusion that they have rich emotional lives isn't mere anthropomorphism; it's backed up by research in multiple fields, including cognitive ethology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

Despite our growing knowledge about nonhuman animals, instead of appreciating them for their uniqueness, beauty and complexity, we've focused mostly on what utilitarian purposes they can serve.

Even as we advance technologically, human behavior becomes increasingly objectionable. We raise and kill a staggering number of land and aquatic animals every year for food in an inherently and systemically abusive system.

We confine nonhuman animals to prisons that are zoos and aquariums, force them to entertain us, and use them as test subjects in biomedical research, much of which is senseless, or aimed at treating chronic diseases that are a result of human consumption of animal products.

In the wild, species are disappearing at staggering rates. Scientists have warned that we're facing a sixth mass extinction. Wild animals continue to be taken by traffickers to be killed for parts or sold in the exotic pet trade. They're killed simply for fun, including by government agencies under the guise of "management," while their habitats are being polluted, fragmented and destroyed by humans in the name of development.

Human disregard of the natural world and the species with whom we share it led to a global pandemic that has had a devastating impact around the world, which, worryingly, likely won't be the last we see of deadly zoonotic diseases—even as we continue to face a very real climate crisis.

Much of the way humans treat nonhuman animals, both legal and illegal, happens behind closed doors and out of sight. It's in the best interest of industries that exploit them for profit to keep it that way. While there is increasing awareness about the plight of nonhuman animals, far too much of the information we're regularly exposed to about them, particularly in the media, doesn't give a "voice to the voiceless."

Instead, it both subtly and overtly reinforces speciesist views, especially by misrepresenting nonhuman animals and their lived experiences by referring to them as if they were inanimate objects, as it, that and which.

This misrepresentation perpetuates their objectification and fails to show humans exactly who these animals really are, and how they suffer from widespread institutionalized oppression and systemic injustices on a daily basis. This must change to reflect their existences as conscious beings—a nonhuman animal is a who, not a that. A someone, not a something.

The way we use words is indicative of how we relate to the world around us; our words represent our thoughts about others, convey the value we place on other lives and actively shape the course of our relationships and actions. Calling someone it distances us from them, rather than acknowledging our relationship with them. Dismissing someone as an it communicates a thoughtless reference, as if the it in question has no rightful place in this life or is somehow separate from our own existence; that they are less than and we are superior.

Our choice of words builds a framework that can encourage healing or cause harm. This is also visible during interactions between people where there is a lack of acknowledgment, which can prove to be devastating.

Using proper personal pronouns for nonhuman animals, or the gender-neutral they when we are unsure of their sex, would reflect the fact that they, like us, are sentient beings.

More than 80 leaders in animal advocacy and conservation have joined In Defense of Animals and Animals and Media in calling for this to be the standard recommendation in the Associated Press Stylebook to encourage dialogue about how to respect and protect nonhuman animals and their rights and interests, which would help shape a more equitable world.

If not for our hubris and denial of what it means to be an elephant, Happy could have lived her life in the wild among a multi-generational matriarchal herd, where she would have shared lifelong bonds with her mother, family members and others of her kind and enjoyed the simple act of making decisions about her life.

Instead, she is confined and alone, and while her case is being appealed, she can't do anything about it but quietly wait day after monotonous day, either for us to acknowledge her reality and send her to an accredited sanctuary, or to simply die where she is.

While she is physically isolated, she is not alone in that billions of other nonhuman animals are waiting for us to see them too; to understand them; to overcome speciesist prejudices we hold; to end their oppression; to stop considering them renewable resources; to save their homes; to stop justifying our consumption of their bodies; to stop owning them as property; to stop using them as test subjects; to stop referring to them as things, and to acknowledge they, too, are conscious beings who have a rightful place in this world.

We are past the point of needing scientific evidence that animals are conscious beings, and it is time to update the way we talk and write about them to recognize this fact and to acknowledge that as humans, we exist as part of a whole on this Earth, not separate from it. We share this planet with a mind-blowing array of incredible, awe-inspiring, sentient nonhuman animals whose lives matter to them and who each deserve the dignity and respect of us acknowledging that and referring to them as who, not that.

People in LA are feeding each other the food that would be wasted

In any given U.S. city, on any given night, chances are that dumpsters are sitting full of perfectly good food discarded by grocery stores, hotels and restaurants—while people just a few miles away struggle to get enough food on their plates. Even though there is plenty of food in the U.S., many Americans still continue to go hungry.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Food deserts exist within the nation's urban centers, and according to the USDA's latest Household Food Security in the United States report published in September 2020, more than 35 million people in the United States experienced hunger in 2019. Households with children were significantly more likely to experience food insecurity, and even before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million children lived in food-insecure households according to the report.

Hunger was already a serious issue in the U.S. prior to COVID-19, and the situation has gotten worse due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many businesses have been forced to shut down since March 2020 as a result of these ongoing economic impacts, which has displaced millions of workers. The U.S. unemployment rates have skyrocketed in comparison to the figures before the pandemic.

While many of the numbers are still being tallied, the nonprofit Feeding America estimated that 45 million people "may have experienced food insecurity in 2020" because of the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers in cities around the country have been implementing emergency food drives, free grocery deliveries and mutual aid projects like community free-food fridges to feed their neighbors since early 2020. Notably, it is individual community members, not the government nor large institutions, who are at the forefront of the effort to help people who are facing food insecurity.

In Los Angeles, a series of projects powered primarily by volunteers have been working to connect hungry people with excess food that would otherwise be wasted—an effort that has doubled down since the beginning of the pandemic.

Genevieve Riutort, deputy director of LA's Westside Food Bank, says the need for food assistance doubled in 2008 and had just begun to return to pre-recession levels when COVID-19 hit.

"The biggest change now is that in addition to low-income families already needing food assistance, so many local people who had never before needed help—parents and children, homebound seniors, people working in the entertainment industry, gig workers, housekeepers and custodians, restaurant workers, college students and veterans—now rely on the food assistance network to feed their families," she says. "Some of our member agencies, those that were run mainly by older volunteers, had to close [due to the pandemic], and many of the new programs are staffed by new volunteers who are now starting to return to their jobs. Some are operating out of sites that may no longer be available as businesses reopen."

In addition to working with member agencies, the food bank has also been supporting local community-led programs in an effort to mitigate the increased need for food assistance and provides food to more than 60 local food programs. Among them is a volunteer-based community food distribution program, Nourish LA, which was founded by Natalie Flores of West Los Angeles to meet the stark increase in food insecurity due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Nourish LA connects people in need of food with establishments that have excess food to offer. They collect donations from farms, community trees and gardens, and they intercept food from supermarkets that would have otherwise been thrown out. She says the need to connect hungry people with food, which LA has in excess, remains critical even after more than a year since the pandemic began in March 2020.

"It's still an urgent need," Flores says. "Just because one parent has gone back to work doesn't mean it's enough because our cost of living is so high. People are trying to cut costs however they can… We're actually finding that we're busier now [as] more people have access to us [Nourish LA]."

The organization gets the word out about what they're offering through case managers and local schools, as well as area flyers and online outreach.

"We really try to put the word out to make sure that people who are really in need can come and get some food," she says.

The idea to start Nourish LA was sparked by a moms group Flores was part of on Facebook.

"I'm a mom of a three-year-old… and I was just seeing so many mothers [in the Facebook group forum] asking for help, whether it was help buying their family a pizza or buying groceries, and I just thought it was absurd," she says. "My background is in urban farming and waste management, so I had already come to find that there's a ton of food waste going on in the city and it's not being mitigated or shared properly with the people who need it. For example, every major grocery store generates an insane amount of food waste."

According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, food waste equated to about "133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010." That estimated 30-40 percent of the food in America that gets wasted, the USDA points out, negatively impacts society. The USDA website states:

"Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. Land, water, labor, energy and other inputs are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food."

The issue of hunger in America is not one of food scarcity, but of distribution and access. The challenge comes in connecting people who need food with the excess food that exists—and is likely to be wasted.

Because of her background, Flores says she knew that the systems required to redistribute the wasted food in her area to the people who could use it were not in place. So, she began partnering with various organizations in her area—from restaurants and farms to nonprofits, to the local Westside Food Bank.

Riutort of the Westside Food Bank says the need for food assistance reached a record high level when the pandemic began.

"[The pandemic] created food insecurity for tens of thousands of additional households in our service practically overnight," she says. "To help meet this unprecedented surge in need, several grassroots food distribution [programs] like Nourish LA sprung up, and agencies that previously did not have food programs, like YMCAs, also began distributing food."

The Westside Food Bank supports these new distribution programs by providing them with free, nutritious food from their warehouse each week. Riutort says beginning in March 2020, the Westside Food Bank doubled its wholesale food purchases and increased the amount of food it distributed to member agencies as well as new community partners.

"Programs like Nourish LA are reaching people who need food assistance for the first time because of the pandemic, and truly focus on a neighbor helping neighbor model that reduces stigma, encourages participation among immigrant communities, and focuses on providing nutritious and culturally appropriate foods," she says.

Riutort notes that for many, the impacts of the pandemic will be long-term when it comes to food insecurity. While a small number of people who lost their jobs and sought food assistance for the first time will be back on their feet soon, she says many thousands of local households will face up to a decade of food insecurity after having depleted their savings, accumulated debt and cashed out retirement plans. With the rent relief and eviction moratoriums put into place in response to the pandemic likely to expire soon, "many face the imminent threat of becoming homeless," Riutort says.

"The pandemic has changed the face of food assistance for years to come," she says. "We are concerned that as the health crisis eases, we may see a reduction in community support for food programs. We are working to keep people informed about the ongoing need to support local food assistance programs. We also intend to maintain our higher level of food purchasing and distribution for the next several years to better meet the local needs. We tailor our food purchasing based on the best available wholesale prices and the specific nutritional and cultural needs of our community."

Starting a Local Food Assistance Program

Many people who live in urban centers may not realize that there are urban food deserts in their area, or that the need for community donations and food distribution is widespread in most U.S. cities. Riutort says Westside Food Bank's service area, for example, which encompasses about one-tenth of Los Angeles County and houses "well over a million residents, has a reputation of being a wealthy area. However, [many households can barely afford] the cost of living in the area, which is particularly high."

"The rate of food insecurity in our area matches the national average with one in six households with children lacking enough food on a regular basis," Riutort says. "That figure is even higher among Black and Latino households… Prior to COVID-19, our food was reaching about 110,000 people annually; now we are nourishing more than 200,000 local people, nearly half of whom are children."

Flores says if someone wants to start something similar to Nourish LA in their own area, partnering with local churches is the easiest route.

"This is because you need refrigeration, and a parking lot—and you need space," she says. The other reason, she says, is that churches already have their own nonprofit number, and having nonprofit status is key to collecting food donations and giving food away. The "Good Samaritan Act provides liability protection for food donations," according to a blog on the USDA website, and requires a third-party nonprofit in order to establish this protection. This protection incentivizes businesses like restaurants and grocery stores to donate their excess food.

"Often businesses will be concerned with, 'What if somebody gets sick [after consuming the food]?' and the nonprofit status [entity] acts as a third party so that stores aren't liable for the food anymore," she explains. "Once food is given off to a third party, stores [or individuals or other businesses] don't have liability relating to this food."

"I began by casting a big net," Flores says, noting that she had recently learned about FoodCycle LA, which works to prevent food from major grocery stores from going to the landfill.

Nourish LA now partners with FoodCycle LA in addition to a number of other local programs. Additionally, Flores had already worked with the Westside Food Bank and Food Forward, which focuses on gleaning surplus fruit and veggies.

"I called on my network and I told people, 'I want to create a food drive to help people in need gain access to healthy food,'" she says. The groups she contacted were immediately on board.

Flores made a flyer for an event and got friends and neighbors together for the effort. They recycled the plastic and paper bags that had been sitting in their pantries and used them to pack up healthy food products, fruits and veggies that were donated, to distribute to neighbors. In their first event, they helped 60 families and ran out of food in an hour. Next, she called up a friend who owns the local restaurant the Wood Cafe and asked to host an event there. Being a restaurant, the Wood Cafe was able to get a hold of a significant amount of food donations. Even so, the event ran out of food in 20 minutes.

"I knew that we had to expand, and we had to reach more people," she says, because "I knew there was more food" being needlessly wasted.

Nourish LA and its partners put the call out to people to glean the fruits from their trees—all the grapefruits, lemons, avocados and oranges (which are ample in LA most of the year)—and donate them.

"Sometimes there are elders who own parcels of land that have fruit trees, and they don't have the energy or the capacity to harvest them, but we'll harvest them. We'll go there and talk to them, and they almost always say yes. I always tell people, please do not sit on that fruit. It's not good for your trees, and you can feed people [with the fruit]."

In addition to the fruit, donations from restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, Nourish LA also began to receive canned foods, dry goods and other donations from local households. They expanded the call for volunteers and eventually gained traction.

"First we were reaching 70 people, then 100, then 1,000," says Flores.

Now, they reach about 3,000 people every weekend. They serve West Los Angeles but also deliver to people in Inglewood, Culver City, Mar Vista, Venice and Santa Monica.

"What's great is that it's not garbage food, it's really healthy food. It's fresh baked bread, vegetables, eggs and organic milk," she says.

Nourish LA has 50 regular volunteers that help throughout the week with everything from picking up and transporting food to setting up and breaking down their events.

Nancy Beyda, executive director of FoodCycle LA, says there are "major issues in the food distribution system in the U.S., and these barriers are mirrored in the system for recovering excess food." FoodCycle LA approaches food waste as a systemic issue that contributes to hunger as well as the climate crisis. She says organizations collaborating and partnering when possible is key to creating large-scale change.

"We're focused on creating systemic change, and in order to do that we want to create a network that is large enough to have a big impact," Beyda says. "Our current food system is deeply broken—moving away from ideas of scarcity and competition for resources toward values like sharing and collaboration is a necessary part of the shift in consciousness that we need in order to truly fix the system, and save the planet."

Beyda says their organization's food distributions grew more than 1,000 percent during 2020, made possible by community collaborations.

"Creating these partnerships with local organizations allowed us to expand dramatically in response to the pandemic," she says. "We currently work with almost 330 different community-based organizations that are serving food-insecure populations."

Since 2019, FoodCycle LA has been implementing Hack for LA's online database Food Oasis, which collects up-to-date information about all the organizations in Los Angeles helping to feed people and maps them out. They also use the ChowMatch app to help people connect with food resources.

Unlike many community food distribution programs, FoodCycle LA accepts perishable foods, because they have the systems in place to get them to people before they go bad.

"We understood that in order to best direct resources and make sure that donated food is used, rather than wasted, it was important to know exactly where to send it," Beyda says. "The food that we receive is perishable and is often near the end of its shelf life, so it needs to be used immediately. We have to know where they can distribute it as soon as possible, so that it doesn't end up spoiling and getting thrown away later. We also believe that it is important to help community-based organizations where neighbors are helping neighbors."

Beyda says one challenge in the food recovery space is that many of the food recovery processes in place were not set up to pay attention to the environmental impacts of recovering and transporting food, or whether that food was being used once an agency received it.

"I discovered this personally when I spent weekends getting farmers market donations for a homeless organization that ended up tossing much of it later in the week as it went unused," she says. "These donations were being tracked as diverted from the landfill but were actually being ultimately thrown away. Part of this problem can be solved by technology and better matching donations where they are truly needed. At the onset of the pandemic, we worked to move food around from some of the large food pantries that were going to throw away excess donations and distributing it to smaller organizations that actually had a need for more food. We also have incorporated electric vehicles in order to offset the environmental impact of transporting recovered food. Looking at the systemic issues that exist and incorporating technology to address them has helped us to do a better job of recovering food and making sure it gets to the people who really need it."

Beyda says 2020 demonstrated the new system of community-based food distribution "really works."

"We can have an amazing impact and help many, many people by taking a step back and looking at ways to do things more consciously and also by collaborating and working with other like-minded folks," she says. "One of the unexpected blessings last year was being introduced to so many amazing individuals like Natalie [Flores] and seeing how much we could do when we joined hands and supported each other."

There is increasing pressure on grocery stores and restaurants not to waste their perishable foods. Flores notes that grocery stores and other establishments in California in particular face this pressure as the state has adopted the first mandatory organic recycling bill, AB 1826, which went into effect in 2019 and 2020, making it mandatory for businesses that create more than 2 cubic yards of solid waste to compost.

"[Businesses] are looking to get rid of their excess food as easily as possible, so now there's even more of an incentive for stores to give out their food to people like us," she says.

In addition to distributing food to people in need, Nourish LA offers accessible gardening education, through a partnership with Shemesh Farms in which they collect the farm's leftover seeds and seedlings to give away to people who want to plant vegetable gardens. They gather with master gardeners to answer people's questions and provide education around planting and care.

Flores says a project like Nourish LA is replicable almost anywhere, and all that it requires is people who are willing to organize and take action to get it off the ground.

"I want to encourage people to get up and do something," she says. "If you're tired of the way things look and you're tired of the way things are, then what are you really doing about it? We actually have a lot of power."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Judge blocks debt relief program designed to help farmers of color amid lawsuit

While Congress managed to pass the American Rescue Plan, which included $4 billion for Black farmers and other minority farmers, many of those farmers have yet to reap any of the benefits from that piece of legislation.

According to The Washington Post, judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin's Eastern District, on Thursday, June 10, issued an order temporarily halting the program. The ruling was made in response to a lawsuit filed by a conservative group representing white farmers who believe the program "is unconstitutional because it discriminates against them."

The publication reports that the lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Speaking to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rick Esenberg, the group's president and general counsel, criticized the program as he claimed it raises "grave constitutional concerns."

"The Court recognized that the federal government's plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm," Esenberg said.

However, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture argue otherwise. In fact, the department is vowing to push back in the program's defense when the situation goes to court. In a statement to The Washington Post, Matt Herrrick, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) director of communications, spoke out on behalf of the department.

"We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers," Herrrick said. "When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress."

The program, which was passed along with the $1.9 trillion relief package back in March, had a targeted goal of correcting the long history of imbalance where funding for farmers is concerned. For decades, Black and Latino farmers along with other minority farmers have faced difficulty obtaining funding from the government. The COVID-19 pandemic further contributed to those difficulties as people of color were disproportionately impacted.

"Over the last 100 years, policies were implemented that specifically twisted in a way that disadvantaged socially disadvantaged producers," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. "There's no better example of that than the covid relief efforts. Billions of dollars went to White farmers, because the system is structured in a way that gives them significant advantages."

At this point, it is unclear how long the program will be stalled due to the lawsuit.

A call for more plant-based eating has started a meat war

Colorado Governor Jared Polis's declaration of March 20 as "MeatOut Day" to promote plant-based diets—which are beneficial to human health, the environment, and the prevention of cruelty to animals—sparked controversy between animal rights activists and the meat industry that went beyond state lines.

Polis is not the first major politician to promote this message to eat less meat; he joins governors and mayors in 40 additional states and cities who have signed similar proclamations in recent years. Originally conceived in 1985 as the "Great American Meatout" by the Farm Animal Rights Movement, an animal welfare nonprofit based in Bethesda, Maryland, to protest a U.S. Senate resolution proclaiming National Meat week, MeatOut Day has been proclaimed by state and national governments around the globe.

"Removing animal products from our diets reduces the risk of various ailments, including heart disease, [high blood] pressure, stroke, various cancers, and diabetes; and… a plant-based diet helps protect the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, preserving forests, grasslands and wildlife habitats, and reduces pollution of waterways," said Polis in his proclamation.

The announcement was applauded by environmentalists and animal rights advocates. But there has also been significant pushback, unsurprisingly, from the meat industry and the politicians who support it. The Colorado Cattlemen's Association (CCA) slapped back with their own call to have a "Meat In" on March 20. "On this day, CCA encourages Colorado to meet in a restaurant and order your favorite meat dish, meet your family and friends for a meal featuring meat!"

"For our governor to say that we should have a meat-free day is the last straw," said Republican State Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer. "It's just one more attack against my county." Polis's declaration also raised interstate hackles. "That is a direct attack on our way of life here in Nebraska," Governor Pete Ricketts said at a news conference at Frank Stoysich Meats, the Omaha-based butcher shop where he announced the creation of "Meat on the Menu Day." Colorado Public Radio dubbed the growing clash a "carnivorous culture war."

But if Nebraska's way of life involved a healthy and safe natural environment and stable climate, then Ricketts might take a deeper look at what eating meat is doing to the planet. "It's tempting to believe in quick technological fixes that will let us keep indulging in burgers without the climate guilt," Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist at New York University, and Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at Harvard Law School, wrote on Wired. "But the fact is that currently, the only real solution available is to produce and eat less beef."

As Polis said, plant-based diets do help protect the environment, but that's merely a more pleasing spin on the main, terrifying fact: Meat-based diets are having devastating consequences on the environment and climate. The emissions alone from the meat industry are reason enough to curb our meat intake. The livestock sector is responsible for 16.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is currently on target to account for nearly half of the total amount of greenhouse gases that global human activity can emit into the atmosphere from now until 2030—if we are to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius maximum temperature increase outlined by the Paris climate agreement.

It's not just all the burps and farts that ruminants like cows, sheep and goats emit (which account for about 5.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases), but the massive deforestation occurring, primarily in the Amazon, to make room for raising cattle and the grains, like soy, meant to feed them. The grazing land used for the production of meat and dairy combined with agricultural land used to produce the animals' feed takes up 30 percent of the Earth's land area—and 80 percent of all agricultural land in the United States.

In April 2020, scientists from the University of Michigan and Tulane University released new research that modeled different climate outcomes between 2016 and 2030 based on varying adjustments in Americans' diet. In one scenario, they found that if Americans were to replace 50 percent of animal products with plant-based foods, they would prevent more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. In another scenario, in which Americans reduce their consumption of beef by 90 percent, that number would increase to preventing more than 2.4 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from being emitted. That would be like taking nearly half of the world's cars off the roads for an entire year.

The scientists write that "this diet projection exercise emphasizes the important role that changes in diet can play in climate action," adding that such changes "will require the concerted efforts of policymakers, the food industry and consumers."

"Moving the American appetite from our burger-heavy diet to plant-based eating is a powerful and necessary part of curbing the climate crisis," said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona, which supported the study and released a policy guide, "Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030," to help decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels to promote the dietary shifts that must happen to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis from happening, like deadly heat waves, sea-level rise, the spread of disease and extreme weather events, species extinction and ecosystem collapse.

"We can't ignore that public health, sustainability, climate resilience and food security are all part of the same recipe. Our government has a responsibility to make healthy, climate-friendly foods more accessible to all Americans, and that starts with the dietary guidelines," said Feldstein. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the meat supply chain's vulnerabilities, but our food system faces even greater long-term threats from climate change. We desperately need policymakers to support sustainable diets and a resilient food system."

In declaring Colorado's "MeatOut Day," Gov. Polis became one of those policymakers. And he doesn't just have environmental and climate science to back up his decision. Health experts and animal rights advocates also have reason to cheer. In 2015, after reviewing more than 800 scientific studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm, classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen for human colorectal cancer, while red meat was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.

More recently, in a study published in the journal Diabetes Care in February 2020, researchers from Harvard University, University of Chicago, Oregon Health & Science University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine found "[c]onsiderable evidence from long-term prospective cohort studies… that diets high in red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and all-cause mortality." The researchers conclude, "For the prevention and management of diabetes and other chronic diseases, it is important to… emphasize dietary patterns high in minimally processed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, while limiting red and processed meats."

There is also a powerful ethical argument supporting the shift from meat to plants, as factory farming is the largest source of animal cruelty in the entire span of human history. According to United Nations data, more than 70 billion land animals worldwide are killed for food every year. (Our fish consumption is another magnitude altogether, with commercial fish farms killing up to 120 billion fish annually, with another trillion fish caught and killed in the wild.)

"At no other time in history have so many animals died or suffered so much throughout their lives," writes the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Animal Equality. "For many animals, the only time they see and feel the light and warmth of the sun will be during the trip to the slaughterhouse."

"Meat has always been politicized and meat-eating tied to a lot of perceptions of American identity and masculinity, especially here in the American West," Heide Bruckner, a professor at Colorado University, told Colorado Public Radio following Polis's announcement. Bruckner, whose research involves alternative food systems like urban gardens, organic food and animal-welfare certified meat, supports MeatOut Day as an easy way for people to think about their food choices. "There is a large area in between that all-or-nothing approach that we really should explore," she said. "Realistically, one day isn't radically going to shift perception, change behaviors or reduce meat consumption. But I do believe it can provide an opening for some to consider the role that meat plays in their diet."

Perhaps there hasn't been a radical shift in perception regarding meat, but there has been a steady growing shift. Since MeatOut was first launched 35 years ago, Polis pointed out in his proclamation, "more than 35 million Americans have explored a plant-based diet and reduced their consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs; and major food manufactures and national franchises are marketing more vegan options in response to this growing demand."

Young people are driving that shift. According to research conducted in 2019 and published last year by YouGov, a London-based market research firm, millennials (22 percent) are far more likely than Gen Xers (13 percent) and Baby Boomers (11 percent) to say they've adopted a vegetarian diet. In 2019, YouGov polling found that more than one in five young Americans "say they would be willing to eliminate meat from their diet in order to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change." Younger Americans have shifted to veganism at nearly double the rate of older Americans, according to data compiled by Statista, a market research firm based in Hamburg, Germany. In 2018, half of American millennials were curious about a vegetarian lifestyle.

"Agriculture is the heart and soul of Nebraska," said Steve Wellman, the director of the state's agriculture department, who said meat products generate about $12 billion annually for the state. That may be true now, but he would be well-advised to look at the trendlines that show a big growth in plant-based diets—especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted food supplies, exposed the horrors of animal agriculture, and revealed the connection between the meat industry and pandemics. "[S]tartups focusing on plant-based protein—including Plantible Foods, Rebellyous Foods, Livekindly, and InnovoPro—have continued securing millions in funding amid the pandemic," reports CB Insights, a market intelligence firm based in New York. "Demand for vegan meat soared, with sales up by a staggering 264% in the 9 weeks ended May 2, 2020."

But it's not just startups that are getting into the plant-based market: Eight of the top ten meat processing companies, including JBS, Tyson and Cargill, are now making or investing in plant-based meat substitutes to meet the growing demand. Last year, Arkansas-based Tyson, a meat giant that is the world's largest food processing company, rolled out a vegan line. The company said it was part of their effort to adapt to "changing consumer demands." After OSI North America, which produces meat patties for major fast-food chains like McDonald's, partnered with vegan meat producer Impossible Foods in July 2020, Kevin Scott, the company's senior executive vice president, told Reuters that plant-based meat's "time and place is right now."

"Just as we will evolve past racism, sexism, ageism and religious persecution, we will evolve past barbarism toward animals, too," Earth | Food | Life contributor Nina Jackel, founder of the animal rights nonprofit Lady Freethinker, wrote in Salon. She may be right, but if we do, we will do so without the help of Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose meat-loving "way of life" is really a "way of death"—for people, animals and the planet.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

India’s right-wing government is so hungry for profit it will risk a famine

India's right-wing government has been deploying all the modern tools of repression against a historic farmers' protest. Much is at stake. For the people of India, their agricultural system is about to get far more precarious. For its farmers, ruin, and bankruptcy for millions, is all but guaranteed. For the government of Narendra Modi and his elite backers, it's a crossroads moment; they calculate that their political power is assured for decades if they can refashion the politics of rural India and force dependency upon the farmers.

The farmers are protesting because the three farm bills, which were passed by the central government in September 2020, will dismantle the state-run agricultural procurement system in Punjab and Haryana, the breadbasket states of India.

In its defense, the Modi government has simultaneously claimed that the bills will enable a great modernization and also that nothing will change; the billionaires who will benefit (Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani's Adani Group) have denied having any interest in entering the newly privatized business.

The billionaires have been set loose in the henhouse. As Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty from the World Inequality Lab at the Paris School of Economics reported, India's top 1 percent in today's "Billionaire Raj" have a similar share of the national income as the top 1 percent did under the British Raj.

The "Billionaire Raj" is preparing to turn India back from a country of hunger (on the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India is 94th out of 107 countries) to a country of famine.

Agrarian Crisis Rooted in British Colonialism

The roots of India's agrarian crisis are far deeper than the three new laws. The seeds of the agrarian crisis were planted in the soil of British colonialism.

Precolonial India was characterized by historian H.H. Khondker in 1986 as a moral economy, a "social arrangement which guarantees a minimum subsistence for all." In Mike Davis' book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, he argued that "Mogul India was generally free of famine until the 1770s. There is considerable evidence, moreover, that in pre-British India before the creation of a railroad-girded national market in grain, village-level food reserves were larger, patrimonial welfare more widespread, and grain prices in surplus areas better insulated against speculation." The Mogul state "regarded the protection of the peasant as an essential obligation," relying on "a quartet of fundamental policies—embargos on food exports, antispeculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food without a forced-labor counterpart—that were an anathema to later British Utilitarians." The Marathas, another major pre-British power in India, forced local elites to feed the hungry during famines. The British were horrified, calling this the "enforced charity of hundreds of rich men." The Sikh Empire ruled in Punjab, where many of the protesting farmers are from. Its rulers enacted land reforms even while fighting the Mughals and the British.

Then the British East India Company took over the collection of revenues in Bengal, and the British Empire spread its tentacles across the subcontinent.

Historian Navyug Gill summarized the British system as follows in an article in Outlook Magazine: the British introduced "caste-based private property, the tethering of revenue demands to cash payments, and embedding agriculture within global circuits of production and consumption… [A]ctual harvests no longer corresponded to taxation rates, and fluctuations in commodity prices meant drastic swings between modest prosperity and widespread impoverishment. A bumper crop could be rendered worthless by uncontrollable forces in far-off parts of the empire, and yet the revenue would still have to be paid. The bane of those who became peasants was being at the mercy of the state as much as the seasons."

The commodification of food followed—and so did famine.

Providing insights about the extent of famines in India under the British rule, Davis' book highlights that "[a]lthough the British insisted that they had rescued India from 'timeless hunger,' more than one [district] official was jolted when Indian nationalists quoted from an 1878 study published in the prestigious Journal of the Statistical Society that contrasted 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia." The British imposed new humiliations: "Requiring the poor to work for relief, a practice begun in 1866 in Bengal under the influence of the Victorian Poor Law, was in flat contradiction to the Bengali premise that food should be given ungrudgingly, as a father gives food to his children."

As H.H. Khondker noted, British writer W.H. Moreland in the 1923 book From Akbar to Aurangzeb "made a distinction between" "work famines" under British imperialism and precolonial "food famines." During the pre-imperialism period, people starved because of actual food shortages. Under imperialism, people starved because they were poor, had no employment, and therefore couldn't be fed under a Victorian morality that said you couldn't get something for nothing.

An Economist article published in 1883, which was quoted in Dan Morgan's 1979 book Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World's Food Supply, stated, "A good wheat harvest is still as much needed as ever to feed our closely packed [British] population. But it is the harvest already turning brown in the scorching sun of Canada and the Western States—the wheat already ripe in India and California, not the growth alone of the Eastern counties and of Lincolnshire, that will be summoned to feed the hungry mouth of London and Lancashire."

Mass death through starvation was the price of enabling the British Empire to build a truly global, militarized economy in grain, under which agriculture in all reaches of the globe could serve imperial designs and food itself could become a weapon. Food insecurity for the colonies purchased food security for the metropole.

German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "Famines do not simply occur; they are organized by the grain trade."

Development experiences between India and China are often compared and can be useful here as well.

Pre-colonized China was even better organized than Mughal India. Before the 1839 Opium War, China under the Qing dynasty "had both the technology and political will to shift grain massively between regions and, thus, relieve hunger on a larger scale than any previous polity in world history," as Davis explained in Late Victorian Holocausts.

Imperialism in China led to famine there too, the largest of which occurred in 1876. The multiple Opium Wars, which forced the Chinese government to pay massive reparations to its invaders and plunderers, shattered the old food security system. The state "was reduced to desultory cash relief augmented by private donations and humiliating foreign charity," Davis wrote.

In both India and China, the years of imperialism—the commodification of grain—condemned tens of millions to death by starvation.

Food Security in Independent India and China

Post-Independence, newly sovereign India and China both attempted to get their countries back on the path of food security. Both efforts had initially disastrous results. China had a severe post-Independence famine from 1959 to 1961, worse even than the ones under imperialism. China corrected this trajectory and went on to eliminate hunger and, in 2018, to eradicate poverty as well, as reported at the time by Chinese writer Qin Ling and in Robert Lawrence Kuhn's documentary film "Voices from the Frontline: China's War on Poverty," which was initially aired on PBS before being pulled in May 2020.

In stark contrast with China, India did not have a famine since Independence, but has tolerated chronic hunger. In the most famous comparison of the two countries, economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen wrote in their 1991 book Hunger and Public Action that:

"Comparing India's death rate of 12 per thousand with China's of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958–61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame."

India's National Family Health Survey for 2019-20 showed that in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, sometimes touted as an economic model, 39 percent of children under the age of five have had their growth stunted by malnutrition. The report is full of similar achievements, state-by-state, by the current Indian government. Approximately 25 percent of all hungry people live in India, where around 195 million people are undernourished. Thousands per day, perhaps a million per year, die of malnutrition in India, most of whom are children.

A majority of the population lives in poverty.

India's Flawed Agrarian System

Navyug Gill outlined the limited nature of India's post-Independence agrarian system in his article about the roots of the farm bill demonstrations. "[W]hat was put in place from the 1950s onwards was a system of rules, quotas and regulations meant only to minimize the worst of colonial depredations. The purpose was to mainly fulfil the growing needs of a famine-stricken country while bringing about a modicum of stability for landholders of varying sizes. In other words, the state modified and re-directed rather than transcended the tensions among national food supply, capitalist imperatives and rural wellbeing."

Let's go into the details of these measures, using several interviews conducted in different media with agriculture researcher Devinder Sharma as our source material.

From India's independence in 1947 until the mid-1960s, India was dependent on food aid from the United States' PL 480 program. The Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) were established in the 1960s with the intention of getting India off of this dependence on U.S. food aid. The system was built in tandem with the U.S.-sponsored Green Revolution, which sought to use capital-intensive, high-tech, high-input techniques to increase yields. The danger was that in the absence of such a system, higher yields would lead directly to a crash in agricultural prices, the ruination of farmers, and a British Empire-style cycle of disaster.

Two pieces were put in place to protect against this. First, government-run markets, the so-called "mandis," were set up where the government would purchase the farmers' grain at a guaranteed price (which would later be called the "minimum support price," or MSP) if the private sector could not. Second, the government, through the Food Corporation of India (FCI), would "mop up" the surplus production in bumper crop years and move that grain to deficient areas through the public distribution system. The system worked: the Green Revolution yields did indeed materialize. The mandis raised enough in taxes to fund not only the market infrastructure but also a network of village roads and certain rural development funds. Dependence on PL 480 grain was broken. And there were no more famines.

There were, however, flaws with the system. First, as environmental activist Vandana Shiva documented, the environmental effects of the Green Revolution rendered it unsustainable in the long term. Second, environmental unsustainability was matched by financial instability; the imported American model of the Green Revolution was based on saddling farmers with impossible levels of debt.

There were also limitations, including a gap in procurement, as Sharma explains: despite the announcement of the MSP for 23 crops, only two (wheat and rice) are actually procured by the government—and without actual government procurement, the mere announcement of an MSP is meaningless. Infrastructural limitations also reduced the system's effectiveness, as Sharma goes on to say: the goal was for farmers to have access to a mandi within 5 kilometers, which would have meant setting up 42,000 mandis. But in more than 50 years, only 7,000 mandis have been established.

The result of these limitations is that only 6 percent of farmers access the minimum support price (MSP), while 94 percent are dependent on the market, explains Sharma during an interview with Newsworthy. The fact that so few farmers access the MSP is used by government proponents to argue that the farm bills are removing the last fetters on an efficient market. But, Sharma asks, while quoting figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, if the market system is so good for India's farmers, why have 364,000 of them committed suicide since 1995? Why do farmers want an assured—and higher—MSP? The analogy with the labor market is clear enough—if the labor market were as good as free-market proponents claim, why would there be a need for a minimum wage, much less unemployment insurance?

The private buyers who want to get into the government business have promised that farmers would get higher prices than the MSP from them. Devinder Sharma asked during his interview why they would have any objection at all to a minimum support price, if they planned to pay more. He points out that the state of Bihar, which did away with its APMC system in 2006, sees farmers trucking wheat and rice into Punjab and Haryana to sell at the (now threatened) minimum support price guaranteed in those states.

The APMCs are accused of being government middlemen, Sharma notes. But the biggest fortunes in the world are already being amassed by middlemen "wearing a tie and a suit," from Walmart to Amazon, who want "to replace the traditional middlemen" the government has acted as. India's super-rich, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, are the picture of the American-style, well-connected, monopolist middleman. If the farm bills are not repealed, the new private grain trade will fall into their laps.

Years ago, Canadian agricultural economist Ian McCreary did a study of the Indian food procurement system. In an interview on February 6, McCreary told me that after crunching three decades of numbers, he found the Indian system to be "quite successful in its objectives" of providing stable prices and food security. The government assumed the financial risks, of which there were several. On the one hand, low international prices combined with a bumper crop at home would see India trying to store grain (expensive in India) or export at a loss. On the other hand, importing in a year when prices were high could get extremely expensive. But neither of these problems could be solved by privatization, as McCreary explained: "If the government wanted to contract out the storage, they could have done that within the structure of the current system." And even after privatization, if prices rose to the point where millions of people couldn't afford to purchase food, the government would still be responsible for feeding them.

McCreary had concluded that extending government procurement at the minimum support price to pulse crops from drier and less productive regions would benefit both farmers and those who received food through the public distribution system. While he shared concern for the farmers, McCreary was also very concerned about the food security implications of the new farm bills. "Poor consumers are going to be very vulnerable in the event of international prices being driven up."

The government weighs these implications against opportunities for Reliance and Adani to make profits in a new market. McCreary further said, "When you move from a situation where [the] market is controlled and prices operate within a defined range, to one where you're exposed to the market, the players that buy and sell grain to arbitrage have [the] potential to make quite a bit of money."

Privatization of Grain Procurement in Canada

India's rulers look to the West for inspiration; but in fact, Western agriculture should be an inspiration to no one. The nightmarish consequences of privatized corporate agriculture are poorly understood by those who see only Western agriculture's productivity and not its real social and environmental costs.

Take the example of Canada. The privatization of government grain procurement in India today under Narendra Modi is analogous to the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) in 2012 under Canada's right-wing former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Established in 1935, the CWB was a farmer-run, farmer-funded marketing agency that worked through a "single desk"—private buyers had to buy from the Wheat Board and could not negotiate prices directly with farmers. Farmers earned more. Former National Farmers Union (NFU) president Terry Boehm estimated before the privatization that "Wheat Board marketing and single-desk selling bring hundreds of millions more dollars to farmers each year than they would receive in an open market." Like India's system, the CWB was privatized amid half-hearted murmurings about "increased economic opportunities" for farmers through a rapid and deceitful piece of legislation—in this case, called the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act. The elected board was dismissed, the assets turned over to their new owners, a joint venture called G3 Global Grain Group. Within two years of the privatization of the CWB, several of the grain companies increased their profits by billions.

Like the APMC, the CWB wasn't perfect—some farmers no doubt had believed they would do better on their own, while others complained about a lack of transparency. These farmers, Boehm says, "now labor under a system dominated by multinational grain companies that disclose almost nothing." Ed Sagan, another NFU member, did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that an average farmer has probably lost nearly half their income since the CWB was dismantled—a figure confirmed by multiple years of Statistics Canada reports. A chart produced by the union outlines many of the depressing new realities.

Meanwhile, the United States, Canada, and the EU are demanding India produce less locally and provide a bigger market for highly subsidized grain sourced from the metropole. Economist Prabhat Patnaik has noted that "diversification away from food grain production and importing food grains instead from imperialist countries has been a demand of the U.S. and EU for quite some time."

Looking Beyond the West for Solutions

Neither Canada nor the United States offers any kind of model for agriculture. In the United States, farm incomes are on a continuous decline, and rural suicides are on a continuous rise. Throughout Europe and North America, agriculture is heavily subsidized, with the average U.S. farm receiving subsidies of tens of thousands per year ($61,286 in support per farmer, compared to $282 per Indian farmer, by one estimate). Indian farmers have the suicides, but they will never have the subsidies, nor will they have a fraction of the land per farmer that North American and European farmers have.

The development advice given to developing countries by the IMF and World Bank for the past several decades has been to depopulate the countryside and move the people into cities. People have moved. They were living in cities at the edge of survival, and when COVID-19 hit, they found themselves unable to survive there, leading to the largest urban-to-rural migration in human history. But more than half of the people of India still make their livelihoods from agriculture, which receives a public sector investment of 0.4 percent of GDP (compared, as Sharma points out in an interview with Enquiry, to 6 percent of GDP in tax concessions to the corporate sector annually, a number that has only grown with recent corporate tax cuts).

So what could be done? China recently eliminated rural poverty, but there is little in China's recent experience, with dedicated government and party cadres helping individual rural families with income-generating and income-supplementing initiatives, that India can emulate.

But there is no reason India couldn't find its own way to eliminate poverty. There is much that could be done, starting with Sharma's suggestions: The minimum support price could be extended to more crops, the price raised, and the number of mandis increased to reach the one-per-5-kilometers goal. The state of Kerala has set a minimum price of 20 percent above the cost of production for vegetables—and the prices end up higher than they announce. In PM Modi's own state of Gujarat, there's a very successful dairy cooperative called Amul. The cooperative model could be fruitfully extended to provide better livelihoods for farmers. Between work produced by national commissions, peasant movements, economists, and policy analysts, Navyug Gill has pointed out that "real alternative solutions are actually not hard to come by."

As so often occurs in our neocolonial world, it is the colonial baggage that must be discarded. Once it is, solutions present themselves in abundance.

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

Why Bernie Sanders took a stand against a Biden nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.

The Senate voted 92-7 to confirm Vilsack, with Sanders (I-Vt.) and six Republicans opposing his appointment. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was the only member who did not vote.

In a statement on his decision, Sanders first said that "I have known Tom Vilsack for many years and look forward to working with him as our new secretary of agriculture."

"I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry," Sanders explained. "I heard from many family farmers in Vermont and around the country who feel that is not what Tom did when he last served in this job."

The Hill reports Sanders made similar remarks about Vilsack to journalists after the vote, saying that "I think he'll be fine, but not as strong as I would like."

The progressive group RootsAction praised Sanders on Twitter for taking a stand against Biden's pick to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout also welcomed Sanders' move.

"This is the correct vote. Vilsack failed farmers, farmworkers, the land, and the public, and Shirley Sherrod," Teachout tweeted, referencing the former Georgia state director of rural development at USDA who was ousted under Vilsack.

Sherrod, who is Black, recently told The 19th that "I have no ill will towards him, none at all," but added that if Vilsack returned as USDA chief, "he should be ready to get on the ground to make real change this time around. And we need to hold him to it. Black people need to see some real change."

As Common Dreams previously reported, Vilsack has faced criticism for the USDA's treatment of Black farmers when he headed the department during the Obama administration—among other critiques.

Center for Food Safety policy director Jaydee Hanson said in December that Biden's potential selection of Vilsack was "a huge step backwards in our urgent need to support agricultural systems that protect public health, the environment, and mitigate the ongoing climate crisis."

Early Tuesday, in anticipation of Vilsack's bipartisan confirmation, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter—whose group has been raising alarm about him for months now—issued a warning about what to expect going forward.

"We can confidently predict what Tom Vilsack's leadership of the Agriculture Department will look like, because he's led it before. And the prediction is grim," she said. "In his previous stint at USDA, Vilsack backed mass corporate consolidation of our food system at the expense of struggling family farmers. Similarly, he readily advanced industry-driven initiatives allowing companies to inspect their own poultry processing plants, dismantling federal oversight of food and worker safety."

"This administration needs to drastically shift course from the Trump era by supporting sustainable, independent farming, halting the toxic expansion of polluting factory farms, and ultimately, prioritizing consumer health and worker safety," Hauter added. "We have little hope that Tom Vilsack cares to undertake this effort, so we will be pressuring him doggedly to see the light."

India officials target Rihanna and Greta Thunberg for showing support of Indian farmers’ protest

Things in India just seem to be getting worse as officials resort to violence in response to the ongoing farmers' protest occurring nationwide in the country. Internet access restrictions, cellphone signal restrictions, and media restrictions have been enacted for several days in multiple districts as the government cracks down on advocates and others protesting injustices under the guise of "maintaining public safety and averting public emergency."

For months, thousands of farmers have marched and protested against three bills passed in India's parliament in September. Protests have spread from the Indian capital of New Delhi to other parts of the country and garnered global attention with well-known icons like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeting about the issue. While thousands have applauded the two for engaging prominent Western figures in the cause silenced by many Indian stars, Hindu nationalists, and conservatives in India have launched campaigns against the two celebrities for spreading misinformation and propaganda.

Within hours of Rihanna's tweet linking to a CNN story on the issue and questioning why people weren't talking about the protests, the ministry of external affairs released a statement criticizing "celebrities and others" for their "neither accurate nor responsible" comments. In support of the Indian government, some Bollywood celebrities tweeted against "propaganda" that threatened India's unity and body-shamed Rihanna.


The worst of it comes from Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a vocal supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu-nationalist group one could say is equivalent to the Proud Boys. In a series of tweets, Ranaut not only criticized Rihanna's work, but her appearance and even her skin color. Honestly, Ranaut's disgusting behavior should have gotten her removed from Twitter.

"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken," Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in a statement on Wednesday. "The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible."


But the negative and false narratives right-wing conservatives spread in India, including calling Rihanna a "porn star," did not stop her tweet from going viral and spreading awareness of the farmers' protests. Both Western celebrities and athletes followed suit in sharing that this issue should not only be spoken about but supported. Wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers Juju Smith-Schuster even donated $10,000 to provide medical assistance to farmers in need, many of whom have been protesting outside despite deadly cold temperatures.

Rihanna was also supported by Thunberg, who tweeted that she stood "in solidarity with the #FarmersProtests in India," and that "no amount of hate threats or violations of human rights will ever change that." Thunberg even shared a link to register objections to the new laws and a toolkit, in response to which Delhi police said they were investigating whether there was an international campaign to damage India's reputation. The toolkit, Thunburg said, was to "enable anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing farmers protests in India to better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis."

In response to the support Rihanna and Thunberg created online for the farmers protesting, India's government and alt-right officials resorted to violence, as they have done in the past. Indian government officials not only burned photos of Rihanna and Thunberg, but issued arrest warrants for them on the basis that they were inciting terrorism. Tweets shaming the two from Bollywood celebrities quickly gained attention, and headlines in local Indian newspapers highlighted the two by saying they were inciting propaganda and trying to negatively impact India.

Rihanna's tweet couldn't have come at a worse time for India's government. In the last few weeks, global attention towards the farmers' movement has resulted in criticism towards India's handling of the protests by both the United Kingdom and Canadian officials. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly been criticized for his support of Donald Trump and similar tactics of encouraging violence at peaceful demonstrations. According to NBC News, as farmers are not only a key part of India's economy but one of the most influential voting blocs in India, Modi faces challenges in any upcoming elections.

Rihanna's tweet has resulted in the issue becoming a topic of conversation in the U.S. and more awareness being created. Advocates have consistently urged that action to be taken to no avail. hile it is sad that it took a Western celebrity tweeting about the issue for it to garner more attention, it is also laudable that Rihanna took the time to do so. It sheds light on the fact that injustice cannot go unremarked upon.

It also gives activists hope that change can come and that there is support at all levels. While multiple Indian celebrities have been silencing the issue and calling the protests terrorism for their own comfort, Western celebrities raising their voices puts pressure on Indian officials to take action because of the global attention.

As of this report, an injunction issued by India's Supreme Court has temporarily paused implementation of the new laws, but farmers stand strong in demanding total appeal.

"The government treats us like thieves but we are fighting for our rights," Harbachan Singh, a farmer from Punjab who is managing a community kitchen at the Singhu border, told The Guardian. To learn more about the bills in question, check out this quick explainer on why the protested laws are not just an Indian issue but a global issue.

54 million people in the US may go hungry during the pandemic

When I call Chef Q. Ibraheem to discuss urban farming in her own cooking career, she’s in the middle of placing an order for microgreens from a small farm in Lake Forest, a ritzy suburb just north of downtown Chicago. Now’s a great time for her to chat, actually, because the Chicago-based chef is immersed in what she loves, sourcing ingredients as locally as possible.

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