By Pierre Mainguy and Katie Pieschala
As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world, it has wreaked havoc on food supply chains and availability. Over the next year, global poverty is predicted to make an exceptional rise; in the US, while farmers in Idaho dump thousands of pounds of potatoes they have no buyers for, millions of people wait in snaking food bank lines. Pierre Mainguy, founder of Community First, recently sat down with Professor Michael Roberts, Executive Director of the UCLA Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy, to discuss food insecurity in the time of coronavirus. A leader in his field, Roberts has authored multiple leading texts on the subject of food law and recently led a partnership between the Resnick Center and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
According to a study published by University of Illinois researchers, over a quarter of the world’s population is food insecure, lacking access to safe, affordable food that will promote healthy growth . While the traditional image of hunger is starvation, in fact, food insecurity takes a myriad of forms: many of the food insecure people across the world today rely on cheap, highly processed foods that lead to obesity and malnourishment. The complexity of food systems and regulations, both locally and internationally, is a major barrier to combating food insecurity. Multiple governing agencies, sometimes with competing interests, are often responsible for the same sectors. Roberts describes the famous example of pizza regulation in the US: “If it has meat on it, is it regulated by the FDA or the USDA? Well, it actually depends on how much meat. If it’s 2% or more then it's regulated by the USDA”.
Here in LA County, one of Community First’s bases of operation, food insecurity and malnutrition often takes the form of food deserts, geographic areas that, while sometimes packed with fast food, offer little to no fresh produce and healthy options. As Roberts notes: “It’s one thing to go to the farmers market in Santa Monica, here in Southern California, and enjoy a bountiful row of wonderful foods to buy and take home and eat and enjoy the local produce. It’s another thing to go to South Central LA and not have access to those kinds of foods. At least affordable access. And all you have is maybe a fast-food restaurant or gas station food to buy”. Moreover, in LA and in the US at large, food insecurity often exists along racial fault lines. A recent study found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of food insecurity are nearly twice as high for Black households with children as for White households with children. Similarly, Hispanic respondents are food insecure at a rate 60% higher than their White counterparts . Through this biased food system, lacking in affordable, healthy food, historical legacies of poverty, and discrimination manifest themselves as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
In northern rural Cambodia, where Community First primarily works, issues of food insecurity are even more prevalent and impactful. As a nation, Cambodia was devastated by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, which left a quarter of the population dead and destroyed centuries of traditional knowledge. Decades later, Cambodia is still in the process of redevelopment and continues to experience the economic and social aftershocks of the regime. According to the United Nations’ UNICEF, 40% of Cambodian children are stunted from malnutrition, a condition that leads to poor cognitive development, decreased motor abilities, and an increase in risk for chronic nutritional disorders in adult life . In a quickly growing country with the majority of the population under age 30, the physical and mental effects of stunting imperil both individual lives and the economic and political health of the nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has further pressured the struggling Cambodian food system. Travel restrictions have caused unprecedented job loss for the migrant agricultural workers who provide a major source of economic support for their families. In Thailand, where many northern Cambodian villagers seek work, “international remittances decreased from $361 billion in March 2020 to $286 billion in April” .
While rural Cambodia suffers greatly from malnutrition, it also offers hope for worldwide food insecurity solutions. Community First’s longtime relationship with the villages of Sen Sok, paired with the low costs of research and development in Cambodia and the nation’s strong NGO culture, makes the rural north an ideal place to pioneer aquaponics technology as a weapon against hunger. As Roberts notes, “the local communities can be incubators, innovators” that successfully model Community Agricultural Systems that can be adapted across the globe, whether in the food deserts of Los Angeles or the villages of Sen Sok.
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