Opinion | We Need a Secretary of Food

This is an article from Turning Points, a special section that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

Turning Point: The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated an already troubled food industry, leading to widespread hunger and food shortages in some populations.

I am a chef who believes in feeding the many, not just the few. So when quarantines were first introduced around the United States earlier this year, my team at World Central Kitchen, a network of chefs and community organizers stationed around the globe, looked for places where we could feed the masses affected by the combined crises of the pandemic and the recession that it has caused.

You didn’t need to be a genius to find them. The communities suffering most from the effects of Covid-19 are those suffering most from the effects of poverty and economic injustice — places like the Navajo Nation in the American West, which is larger in area than 10 of our states but often remains forgotten when we tell the American story.

The Navajo call the land Dinetah — literally, “among the people” — and by mid-May the pandemic was not just among them, but their infection rate was among the highest in the country. Here, as in other coronavirus hot spots, this was not just a result of bad luck. About a third of the homes on Navajo territory have no running water, and almost half the families live at or below the poverty line.

At Fort Defiance, Ariz., our relief team helped prepare more than 1,500 family meal boxes each week. The effort included local students, such as Sophia Ynzunza, a psychology major at the University of Arizona. She quickly found that the job meant much more than just getting paid. “It’s about giving to my people so they don’t suffer anymore,” she said. “Food is nature to my people. We grew our corn, way back when. Food is love. In order to survive, you’ve got to eat.”

A plate of food represents much more than a recipe. In a crisis, it says that someone cares. In more normal times, it brings family and friends together. Its components can make us healthy, or make us sick. The offerings on that plate are shaped not just by a cook, but also by politics and business.

This pandemic year has reminded us of so many things we have forgotten, or ignored. But it will also show us the path forward, to someday feeding all of America equitably. By returning to our roots, I believe we can build a better future for ourselves and our communities.

When the quarantine put a halt to our way of life, our food economy collapsed. Restaurants and hotels closed, and the food supply chain was broken. Supermarkets struggled to make home deliveries, and farmers began destroying their crops and their animals. Hundreds of thousands of unhatched chicken eggs, millions of gallons of milk, millions of pounds of potatoes — all wasted.

The weaknesses of our national food policies were obvious to experts well before we knew about Covid-19. The pandemic has exposed these failures to the rest of the world.

At the highest levels of the U.S. government — in terms of disaster response, national security, economic policy, public health and agriculture — no single official is in charge of food policy in a comprehensive way.

It’s not just that our priorities are wrong; food is not a national policy priority at all. We invest in, and care more about, the energy that drives our cars and trucks than the energy that drives our bodies.

When the pandemic struck, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set aside $16 billion in emergency aid to farmers, who were by then destroying their crops, but spent only $3 billion to actually purchase their fresh produce, dairy products and meat and distribute them to the hungry. Restaurants, which had employed more than 12 million Americans before the pandemic, were closed by public order but received no bailout. Airlines in the United States, which currently employ about 700,000 people worldwide, received $25 billion and carried right on flying.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of late July, 30 million American adults — one in nine of our neighbors — were going hungry. The lines outside food banks and our own kitchens stretched on for hours every day. But a struggling Congress could not even agree to a 15 percent hike in food stamp benefits, which in any case would have added just 80 cents to the maximum allotment of $5.48 a day to feed each member of a family of four.

None of this makes any less sense than our customary food policies. We pay billions to subsidize farmers who grow the ingredients for our junk food — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk and meat — while the National School Lunch Program reimburses us only $3.68 per child, per meal, for a free school lunch in the contiguous United States.

The truth is that hunger and our health have become political considerations, not medical ones. And we know how to fix our food issues. What we lack is the leadership.

The coming year will give us a chance to cook for and feed America better. At this pivotal moment for our country and the world, we can build a healthier future that is more resilient to global shocks.

For a fraction of the cost of an industry bailout, we can upgrade public school kitchens across the United States and pay the real cost of a free and nutritious school lunch. In times of disaster, our schools can become community kitchens; there are still food deserts in this country, but there are few school deserts. We can dramatically improve the health of our most vulnerable families by improving the food supplies in our corner stores and in our classrooms.

Rather than relying on private donors to fund charities and nonprofits, we can spend federal funds to get our cafes and restaurants back on their feet while the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays for real food programs. We can target our subsidies toward smaller farms and farmers selling healthier foods to their local markets. More than a century after Upton Sinclair’s revelations about the squalid conditions of meatpacking plants in Chicago, we can improve life for our essential workers not only in the fields but in those same plants today.

Above all, we can prioritize and streamline food policy under a new cabinet-level Secretary of Food and Agriculture, with a seat on the National Security Council and a mission to improve our nation’s sustenance. We know that a poor diet leads to poor health, so while we wait for new coronavirus vaccines and therapies, improving the quality of our nourishment is the best way to improve our health. We need to prepare not just for recovery but for the next pandemic and the catastrophic threats represented by the climate crisis. By doing so, we can heal much more than hunger.

In central California, in the middle of the pandemic, my team was preparing meals for some members of the United Farm Workers, who pick America’s crops. “We work so hard so that people can get food on their tables. And yet we are the ones who do not have food for ourselves,” said Carolina Elston, who picks blueberries and table grapes. “Receiving this food is a recognition of how hard we work and contribute to the well-being of the country.”

Food is the fastest way to rebuild our sense of community. We can put people back to work preparing it, and we can put lives back together by fighting hunger. We need to hope for a better world in 2021, and there’s nothing more hopeful than the thought of sharing our food, and feeding a nation.

José Andrés is a chef and the founder of World Central Kitchen.

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