One of the common elements of my dog walks over the last month has been the food trucks.
Of course, they have always been there, but their numbers have not diminished while most other traffic has. There are the big sixteen-wheelers bringing nourishment from outside to supermarkets and wholesalers. There are the smaller delivery trucks such as the ones I see loading and unloading at Romeo’s and Lioni’s. There are the beverage trucks and bread trucks and vans of all variety.
Looking at them brings comfort. Food is arriving. There are eight million of us in this city and, for the moment, most of us have enough to eat.
All of us would, had we all the financial resources to buy the produce, the meat, the packaged food and the rest that continues to flow into the city.
The problem right now is that a growing number of us here in New York don’t, or are finding our reserves growing perilously low with no relief in sight.
Those of us, like me, able to work at home are extremely lucky. Yes, we do run some risk of contracting COVID-19, but economically we are stable. Of all New Yorkers, we are the safest, both economically and in terms of health. Those whose jobs are considered necessary but who are not in the health fields are also lucky, but less so. Though they run the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus daily, they at least have continued income and can feed their families. These people have to be extremely careful and many more of them are going to get sick than those of us in the first group.
The group facing the most danger of disease is, of course, that comprised of health-care workers and first responders. These people need to be applauded by all of the rest of us, as many have been doing every night at seven. But they, too, have economic security that, for the moment at least, assures them of food on the table.
Which leaves a fourth group, those who have been furloughed without pay or who have lost their jobs completely. I know one, a single mother who, though she is trying to get unemployment, is not going to be able to meet her expenses. I know another, a woman in her sixties who cleans houses for a living and who also has health problems. I know a family who, though owning their home, depend on the mother’s income as a dog walker and school-bus driver to survive, for the father’s pension is not enough to cover their expenses, especially with their own special-needs adult son at home. We have helped them all (and others) out a bit, but soon that is not going to be enough, especially as they are not alone. On every block there are dozens, even hundreds like them.
None of them likes accepting help, and none is proud of hoping that the government will assist them—or is helping (at least to some small degree). But their situations are growing more dire by the day.
They want this over but, as New Yorkers, they also recognize that we cannot push things, cannot rush to open the city economy when an extremely contagious disease and generally unidentified carriers (testing is woefully lacking) lurk everywhere. Unlike people in those parts of the country as yet to have the cases we have had here, we New Yorkers all know people who have been sick, very sick, and some who have died.
This is real to us. Not some hoax or disease for ‘other people.’
But that does not make things easier when the end of the financial line grows closer every day.
We here and elsewhere (even in rural states) are going to be in a terrible state as the safety net begins to fail more and more people.
Hunger can upset our entire national strategy for recovery.
And hunger will get even worse, the longer this continues, unless the nation does something to protect our food production and distribution network in addition to making sure everyone has access to food.
Right now, the problem is a lack of the financial means for procuring food soon to be faced by way too many people, if they are not facing it already.
In a few months, food many not even be available in places like New York City that lack the capacity for growing or otherwise producing its own.
South Dakota’s governor Kristi Noem, putting ‘freedom’ over common sense, has refused to batten down her state. This has allowed a hotspot to emerge at the Sioux Falls Smithfield Foods plant, endangering the food supply far beyond the upper Midwest. Farmers are having problems finding workers to harvest their fields and face difficulty in sorting their produce as demand shifts away from formerly assured pipelines like schools and restaurants to over-burdened supermarkets. Dairy farmers, for instance, have had to destroy vast quantities of milk.
It’s not that the need for milk or the other products being destroyed has lessened; it’s simply that an alternative means of distribution is not available and there is no means of storing the perishables until one is established.
If the United States does not start a concerted effort to maintain its food chain, we are all going to face a deadly choice: risk the disease or risk hunger. This is the choice that the governors of states like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota and more are already making in choosing to open up their states to commerce (or never having really closed them) right now.
But the choice is a false one, or it should be. With just a little effort and a massive emphasis on testing, we can maintain our food chain—one of the most important parts of our economy—without endangering more people.
This is not an effort that can be undertaken by individual states or even small consortiums like the one New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are involved in. It needs to be a national effort with the goal of ensuring access to food across the country by making sure that workers are safe, from farm hands to supermarket checkers, and by developing new means of distributing food, perhaps using school-kitchen storage facilities as points of public access to food—as is being done to some extent already.
At the same time, the safety nets need to be strengthened so that every American can buy or otherwise acquire the food they need to exist. It won’t help if we simply manage to get food safely to market and in adequate quantities. People need to be able to take it home and not simply look longingly at it in shop windows.
As many are saying, we can’t simply sit and wait out the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But we can’t just open up. We need to be working as a nation to make sure that our response itself doesn’t threaten us by developing a muscular testing program and alternative means of food access.
After all, we won’t be able to simply say, as food supplies tighten and fewer can afford bread, “Let them eat cake.”