By Gary Paul Nabhan
Not since the mid-1980s has America faced a food and farm crisis of such epic proportions. In 2020, American farmers lost $20 billion dollars in farmgate income and plunged further into debt. For 2021, the USDA is projecting that net farm income will decrease another $12 billion, cutting farmers’ profits by at least another 10 percent. Livestock producers and packers were particularly hard hit, as the novel coronavirus tragically spread through the slaughterhouse workforce, causing closures of many meatpacking plants. As the U.S. became the country in the world with the highest rates of COVID-19, exports of meat dropped as much as 40% for several months. Meat and other food commodities handled by those exposed to COVID-19 were banned from entry into other countries.
Perhaps the long-term effects of the pandemic on farmworkers are the most tragic for our rural communities. Because a large portion of those who harvest our daily breadstuffs are foreign-born, with English as their second language, COVID prevention recommendations and health care were slow to reach them. Many of their ramshackle rural communities — especially in border states — became COVID hotspots with high death rates. Those who survived being COVID positive may face longer-term debilities that keep them from working at all.
I am not merely concerned with the downward turn in the number of farmworkers and foodservice workers in America’s food supply chain, but with the loss of so many talented professionals who have been willing to skillfully work long hours under daunting conditions. As immigration to the U.S. slowed to a halt in the Trump area, it will be a long time before America recruits workers of equal skill to maintain the supply chains.
On the other side of the food chain, there is hunger in the air. Never since the Great Depression have so many Americans required food relief to keep their families from going hungry. Four of ten Americans claimed that 2020 was the first time their families ever had to turn to food banks and soup kitchens to put meals on the table.
The largest network of food banks in the country, Feeding America, never had to access so much food so fast, as it sought to offer 4.2 billion meals just between March and October of last year. Overall, there has been a 60% increase in the number of Americans turning to over 180 food banks nationwide. Feeding American affiliates have seen a 60% average increase in the lines outside food banks, as more than 50 million people experienced outright hunger or lingering food insecurity, including about 17 million children.
Many Americans thank God for the safety net that food banks have built over the last half century kept them from starvation. Many food banks are now trying to close the hunger gap by looking beyond immediate food relief to helping their clients find jobs with livable wages.
Behind the scenes, better science has helped food banks keep Americans healthfully fed, by aiding at least a fifth of all food banks that scrambled to avoid running out of supplies. For the last decade, these organizations have drawn upon some of the most scientifically precise food sourcing, transportation planning and distribution tools the world has ever known to keep perishable food out of landfills so that it can reach the mouths of those most in need.
While the science of dealing with food insecurity has advanced greatly since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, we must not underestimate the compassionate roles of faith-based communities in keeping the most marginalized Americans from starvation. Simply put, churches, synagogues and mosques reach the poor and hungry in ways no government program can equal. Faith organizations have remained the backbone of food relief efforts for the poor at home and abroad for more than a century. While structural racism may infest many other kinds of institutions, I know of no faith-based initiative that restricts its food donations on the basis of color, creed or class anywhere that I have lived in the U.S.
And that is precisely why I feel that if we are to survive this particular food and farming crisis, we will need both better science and stronger acceptance of the roles that faithkeepers play in addressing poverty and hunger. I fear that science-based solutions to the farming and food insecurity will fail if we do not also draw upon the awesome moral and prayerful will of Americans to rescue those most in need. At this critical moment in human history, we cannot ethically afford those who are better-off and double-vaccinated in our country to bubble-wrap themselves in a buffer of complacency and greed.
Two thousand years ago, there was another sort of farming and fishing crisis in a place called Galilee. It flared up as the Roman Empire tried to wring every edible calorie out of that landscape to export to its metropolitan elite and to its military forces. A young, rather contemplative Jew abandoned his trade as a carpenter to venture out into the fields and the harbors to listen to those who had been most marginalized by the commodification of the food they produced. Rather than rallying them for protests that the Romans would inevitably crush, Jesus told them parables of resilience, generosity and abundance that offer them hope. He spoke to them in stories that were rich in the images of agrarian life, rather than in the esoteric rhetoric of bureaucrats and priests.
Jesus offered the poor and hungry fresh ways of seeing the dilemma they faced, and collaborative strategies for dealing with the weight of oppression placed on their shoulders. He did not incite them to violence, but engaged them in deeper reflection and solidarity with one another. In my new book, Jesus for Farmers and Fishers, I show how Jesus welcomed his neighbors of all faiths to imagine a new kin-dom where they could come together to better care for creation and for one another.
Today, we have far better science to deal with both pandemics and the many vagaries in the food supply chains that can force further debt upon farmers and hunger upon eaters. But the science of agriculture and nutrition will not be sufficient to reduce disparities between the haves and have nots in this moment of raging hunger and disease.
At this point in time, we need to deal with the diseases of anger, frustration and depression by rekindling hope. We may do so by heeding the moral and spiritual lessons of the prophets of all faiths who helped their communities survive other crises that brought farmers, fishers and eaters to their knees. Neither logical-positivist science nor prayer alone will be enough to get all Americans now at risk out of harm’s way. We need to embrace both in order to weather the daunting challenges still upon us. Far too many farmers are deal with grinding debt and far to outright hunger in the so-called breadbasket of the world
In this, the so-called breadbasket of the world, far too many farmers are dealing with grinding debt and far too many families are dealing with food insecurity. They need all American’s prayers and innovative problem-solving skills more than ever before.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-celebrated nature writer, agrarian activist and ethnobiologist. For more information, visit garynabhan.com.