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Food in Focus: Global Hunger and the COVID Pandemic

Written by: Sophia Corning, Environmental and Urban Studies major

This year’s Frizzell Series event was an informative, engaging panel discussion centered around how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the global issues of hunger and food insecurity as well as strategies to address these crises. Catherine Bertini and Ertharin Cousin, leading figures in the food security policy, fellows at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs, and both former Directors of the World Food Program, shared their insights regarding the political, economic, and health impacts of the pandemic as well as future implications when it comes to food supply and security. The conversation was led by Anni Beukes, fellow at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation with expertise in the use of digital mapping to study marginalized communities around the world. While the panelists shared their thoughts in depth with attendees, several central themes emerged.

The first portion of the discussion addressed the intersection of COVID-19 and food supply through  a global lens. Two points stood out: first, when it comes to aid and hunger relief, programs within governments and humanitarian organizations have transitioned towards addressing COVID-19 specifically. Further, there is a heightened focus on finding creative strategies to bolster the ability of local communities to address hunger. Ms. Bertini highlighted that while the idea of basing decisions on community needs and priorities has historically been more of a rhetorical expression on the international stage, she is hopeful that “one of the silver linings of this terrible crisis” is that “there will be much more action and decision-making, and respect for decision-making, at the local level.” Another key issue relates to the distribution system of the global food supply.  Ms. Cousin noted that supply chains for certain crops like fruits and vegetables will likely shift towards being more regional in scale, and more broadly, that the pandemic will lead to a transition from an emphasis on the efficiency of supply chains to their diversity, namely the inclusion of more regional and local chains. The panelists clearly indicated that COVID-19 has global political and economic implications for hunger and food supply.

The discussion then pivoted towards a domestic focus and how the pandemic has influenced food systems here in the U.S. Ms. Bertini explained how food waste has become a heightened concern and that greater attention to this problem could result in more creative strategies to reduce waste, including distribution to shelters and centers to support those in need. It is also critically important, as Ms. Cousin highlighted, to address the fact the term food deserts does not adequately encompass the broader social and economic issues in those areas: “they [food deserts] are economic deserts. They are education deserts. They are social justice deserts.” COVID-19 has even more starkly exposed these inequities, for those with restricted access to healthy foods are often those with diet-related preexisting conditions such as hypertension, which in turn heighten vulnerability to the virus. The pandemic, then, provides a chance to further emphasize these disparities and “grow back better,” as Ms. Cousin described it, through targeted investment and expansion of effective food provision programs.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to tragedy and upheaval throughout the world and exacerbated struggles with food insecurity and hunger. As the panelists emphasized, it is crucial that the global community, from governments to individuals, work to address this urgent crisis. We have already seen how strategies and programs have shifted in response to the pandemic and there is potential for new, creative approaches and tools in the effort to bolster food access. The panelists showed that the pandemic will likely lead to significant changes in food distribution and aid efforts, and we can leverage these developments to improve food supply systems and more effectively battle hunger worldwide. The panelists as women leaders with worlds of experience in foreign and domestic service also gave advice to students. They emphasized the importance of learning multiple languages, and noted the lack of women in agriculture. In the midst of these difficult times, I certainly appreciated hearing from leading experts that there is reason to be hopeful for a brighter, healthier future.

Food in Focus was part of the Frizzell Learning and Speaker Series, a program designed to commemorate the life of Alexandra Frizzell through discourse on issues related to agriculture, environment, health and sustainable development.  This year’s event was sponsored by the Program on Global Environment, Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, Institute for Politics and Chicago Studies in the College.

About the speakers:

  1. Catherine Bertini is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Ms. Bertini is the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate for her transformational leadership at the World Food Programme (WFP), which she directed for ten years. She is the founder of the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education, which supports programs to increase opportunities for girls and women to attend school. As a United Nations Under Secretary General, she led UN humanitarian missions to the Horn of Africa and to Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Ms. Bertini is a professor emeritus at Syracuse University, board member of the Stuart Family Foundation, and the Global Food Banking Network, former Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and chair of the board of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).
  2. Ertharin Cousin is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University and Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Ms. Cousin served as the executive director of the World Food Programme from 2012 until 2017, and the US ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome. Prior to her global hunger work, she served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of America’s Second Harvest (now Feeding America). Previously, Ms. Cousin served as senior vice president for Albertson’s Foods and was appointed by the US president to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. Ms. Cousin has been named on the Forbes “100 Most Powerful Women” list, as the Fortune “Most Powerful Woman in Food and Drink,” on TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” list, and as one of the “500 Most Powerful People on the Planet” by Foreign Policy magazine.
  3. Anni Beukes (Moderator) is a Resident Fellow at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, Anni Beukes studies how digital mapping and other analytical approaches impact marginalized communities around the world, such as through the Million Neighborhoods Map, which provides the first comprehensive look at informal settlements across the Global South. Prior to her fellowship, she served as data ecosystem manager at Slum Dwellers International, where she bolstered community influence in broader knowledge acquisition efforts and advocated for the development of tools and methods to enhance this involvement. Beukes received her undergraduate and masters’ degrees from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa in Development and Environment and Social Anthropology.

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If you'd like to learn more, listen to the Hidden Gems podcast curated by recent graduates Julia Hesse-Fong, Kimika Padilla, and Sofia Garrick, where they recap the event in episode three: 'Stepping Up to the Plate