COVID-19 is a wake up call to what food security really means to us

As the majority of my daily commitments have slowly fallen away, the one thing that remains constant throughout all of this is the need to eat and to feed my family. 

Like all of us, COVID-19 has been a huge wake up call to the critical role food plays in our lives, and how, with the threat of it not being there, has put many of us into a frenzy.

Alongside scenes of empty supermarket shelves have been stories of decimated produce and meat sections, with many people leaving empty handed, while others have stocked up for fear of missing out or running out.

The range and enormity of emotions we are feeling right now is huge. And it’s important that we acknowledge them, and let them sit with us for a while. For many of us, these feelings of food insecurity are ones that we have never experienced. Even if it’s just the fear, of the risk, of running out of food. 

Within most Australian homes, (when we aren’t in the middle a global pandemic) 96% of the population consider themselves food secure. In low income areas this is more likely between 75-90%. Sadly, numbers are even lower in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with only 70% food secure.

So what exactly is food security? “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet all their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (World Food Summit, 1996). 

From our government’s perspective, Australia is a food secure country. And admittedly, in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re lucky to be in this position. We currently produce enough food to feed 75 million people, which would feed our current population three times over. 

What COVID-19 is highlighting however, is that food security is more then just about food production. It’s important to consider access, availability and affordability when we talk about food security. And at the moment all of these things have been impaired. 

While supermarkets remain open, our access has been significantly reduced as we’re all encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, thus limiting the amount of times we shop. Cafes and restaurants have also closed, and even though many are still providing takeaway or delivery options, this change has also resulted in decreased access. Availability has been severely affected as demand regularly outweighs supply. And the knock on effect of this is cost. The price of fruit and vegetables has increased three-fold due to the spread of coronavirus. At a time when many Australian’s are feeling the pressure of financial hardship due to job losses, or pay cuts, food affordability has a significant impact on one’s food security. 

The other thing that COVID-19 is emphasising is the hugely important role that farmers play when it comes to our food. While we’re given glimpses into the hardships of farming through media coverage of the drought and milk war prices, these days we are very removed from our rural roots. Many of us don’t know a farmer, and have limited knowledge or understanding of what farming is like in the twenty-first century. We’re also largely unaware to how little farmers are compensated for their hard work within the conventional food system. 

Supermarkets keep us very disconnected from our farmers, and have fundamentally created a system where we prioritise cost and convenience over other things, such as a healthy planet or paying our farmers fairly.   

At a time when the world has nearly come to a standstill, our farmers sit alongside our healthcare workers and education providers, as those essential to meet our daily needs.

It’s been overwhelming to see the demand for local produce soar at this time. The small-scale farmers I know have never been busier. And why is this? Sure some are home delivering, at a time when the major supermarkets have stopped providing this service, which is so critical for those who are self-isolating and still need to eat. 

But what is driving the demand from everyone else? Is it our sudden awareness of the importance of supporting those who grow our food? Is it our need to reconnect with our farming community, at a time when we’re suddenly isolated from each other? Is it the need to eat fresh, nutritious, healthy food at a time when our lives literally depend on it? It could possibly be all these and more. 

I feel when we emerge from this, it’s important that we refocus our priorities when it comes to food. Let’s shift the focus from our countries food security to our community’s food security. 

In a way I feel like COVID-19 is a training run for what our future looks like when we feel the full force of climate change. This crisis we know will end. This could be in four weeks or it could be in four months. But it shall pass. 

Climate change does not have an end point. The already increasing number of droughts, bushfires, floods and severe storms are gravely impacting the production, supply and distribution of food. We have an opportunity here, to recognise that change is not only necessary, but also essential to ensure that we can ALL remain food secure in times of crisis. Because it’s no longer a question of if we’ll experience another crisis, it’s a question of when. 

I believe now more then ever the time is coming for us to act, and to speak up and make our voices heard. Life as we know it, is unlikely to return to normal after COVID-19.  The power is in our hands to transform the food system for the better to one that suits our needs, and not the needs of a handful of big businesses whose priority is profits over the things which we value. Good health, both physical and mental, social connectedness, a healthy planet, equity and connection to community are all things which are hugely important to me, as I’m sure they are to you.

At a time when we’re all so physically disconnected from one another, I feel that social connection is now more important then ever. Fortunately we have the gift of the internet which allows this, so I’ve set up a Facebook Group, Food Citizens Unite to draw on all of our knowledge, skills and expertise in one space.

This is a space for information sharing, support and most importantly empowerment. We the people, have the ability to create a food system that we want. Let’s do this as a collective and build a global movement of food citizens who will shape the development of a socially and economically just, environmentally sustainable food system. I look forward to connecting with you in there.

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    • You’re very welcome Ingrid. There is a real joy in connecting with our farmers. They have such an important role in our lives, and do so with very little reward. It’s time to give thanks for everything they do for us and our planet.