Food justice is a pressing issue regardless of the current pandemic circumstances. According to the USDA, 37 million Americans struggle with food security, 11 million of that figure being children. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 26.4 percent of the world's population, about 2 billion people have struggled with either moderate or severe levels of food insecurity. Food justice, sustainable food recovery, and food security remain one of the top concerns as we fight COVID-19. Cracks in the food systems have never been more obvious.
My name is Sophie Pierce and I am a second-year journalism major at Seattle University. I have taken the liberty to go around Seattle and report on the circumstances of some of the food banks, food justice programs, and community gardens operating during these trying times.
The Office of Multicultural Affairs, otherwise known as OMA, is home to many resources for supporting intercultural learning and development at Seattle University. They spearhead a variety of services, resources, and programs aimed at bringing awareness to historically marginalized experiences, dynamics of privilege, and social justice. Part of their program includes a food pantry for students, staff, and faculty on campus,
The pantry started out as a project by the Gender Justice Center. Students recognized there was a need for better access to food on campus. After the proposal passed through the University’s board, OMA was decided to house the pantry. Located in Pavilion 180, the pantry is set up to have a grocery type feel. During “normal” times, the pantry was open three days a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — at a variety of times to make it as accessible as possible.
There were several initiatives set to take place before COVID-19 came and changed up reality.
“We were working to make the space more of a community to cut down on the stigma of coming by a food pantry,” Karina Saunders, assistant director and main full-time staff person looking over the food security mission said. “A large portion of those who utilize the pantry are grad and law students.”
The pantry’s purpose is less of the main source of groceries and more of a supplementary food source to get students and staff through the day, so Sauders found most of what they had been restocking were string cheese, yogurt, fruits and vegetables like carrots, oranges, and bananas. Some of the food is donated and there have been food donation drives in the past, but the majority of the food is ordered from Costco. OMA had just started a partnership with Chartwell’s Food Recovery Network Winter Quarter.
“The hope was to provide more meals. It looked like food that was cooked in C Street but never served. It was repackaged and put into to-go ware that was then frozen so folks could come and pick up meals,” Sauders said. “One of the biggest barriers for students is the time of cooking, so this was a neat collaboration.”
However, due to COVID-19, this partnership has come to an abrupt halt. The pantry is still open for business, but the choices and circumstances have dramatically changed.
There is now a form on ConnectSU where students can fill out a request for the types of food they need. One of the biggest initial steps to adapting the pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic was problem-solving about how people would pick up their food. OMA decided to use a bagging method where bags would be filled with the desired order and let outside for pickup.
“We are trying to keep choice a factor, but there is no guarantee,” Saunders said. “We are no longer doing fresh or frozen meals and we are not getting aid from Chartwells. No fresh food is a big loss for us.”
Even though the pantry has felt loss brought on by COVID-19, there is always a silver lining, no matter how faint.
“OMA’s staff trying to limit time on campus which means we have really had to rely on other offices. This has been good and challenging,” Saunders said. “There is more of a comprehensive effort between the offices. I see it as a positive.”
In general, there have been lots of food justice and food recovery efforts from different departments around Seattle University but there fails to be a united front. Saunders hopes the effort continues after COVID-19 surpasses and the departments are able to learn from this time and continue their mission together.
Neighbors in Need is an organization that has been running for around 11 years. Operating out of a Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynwood, their main mission is to provide clients a safe place for a hot meal, access to clothing, showers, and medical care. Under normal circumstances, a hot breakfast is served from 8:30 to 10:30 Saturday mornings. According to the NIN volunteers, the hall used to be filled with people on Saturday’s and they were able to serve a substantial portion of Seattle’s population in need.
The organization is now operating on a shoestring. The volunteers are still present on Saturday mornings and are handing out modest bags of groceries to those who show up. The grocery bags consist of essentials like bread, peanut butter, yogurt, boxed salads, prepackaged products like ramen, and a muffin. Dog food is also available for clients with pets. Most of the food available was donated by Trader Joe’s or bought from Costco. Unfortunately, fresh food is no longer available.
COVID-19 has left a considerable impact on the services NIN is able to offer which has been an epic loss for them. The sense of community the breakfast used to foster is eroded. Patrons now have to wait at the double door entrance, 6 feet away from the volunteers, and vocalize what they would like in their bag. The volunteers noted there had been a pick up in new clients. They speculated this could be due to COVID-19’s forced shut down of bars, hair salons, dentist offices, etc.
One other NIN service was preserved. The flower truck. At the end of the food bank’s operating hours, a truck shows up with leftover flowers from Trader Joe’s and opens its back doors for anyone and everyone to take as much as they would like. The truck was chock-full of every type of flower you could imagine: daffodils, roses, elaborate arranges of purple, blue, and orange flowers. I scored some sunflowers and a spider plant.
Despite the massive downscale of their services, every little effort helps. The gratitude and kindness of the clients and volunteers alike was obvious from the minute I walked into the hall.
The Community Alliance for Global Justice is a grassroots, membership-based organization in Seattle that is focused on three main programs: Food Justice Project, AGRA Watch, and Trade Justice.
We are interested in their Food Justice Project during COVID-19. CAGJ’s Food Justice project aims to transform and challenge the cooperative driven, globalized, industrial food system, and encourage existing alternatives. They accomplish their mission through community education, political action, anti-oppressive organizing, and community-building.
CAGJ is a largely volunteer-run organization. During times of normalcy, the community is a big part of their mission so day-long member gatherings, teach-outs, and other face to face interactions are a big part of how they operate. Due to COVID-19’s social distancing ban, the organization has moved to a strictly online platform. It is reported that the members and volunteers have been understanding and have adapted quite quickly.
Unfortunately, the transition has not been as smooth for the working staff.
“For the past three and a half years there have been two full-time staff members, but our beloved Organizing Director moved on to a different organization as the COVID-19 crisis was just beginning. While this was a planned departure, the unfortunate timing has certainly stretched the capacity of our Executive Director,” Noël Hutton, the Food Justice Project Co-chair said. “Typically we have many interns at our office in Beacon Hill as well, but now all operations have moved remotely.”
Regardless, the organization has worked tirelessly to keep up with the shifting times and continue to complete its mission to the best of their abilities. The need for food justice has grown exponentially during this time of crisis. To curb some of the loss for their members, the Food Justice Project has launched some initiatives to uplift the struggles of the people.
“Our Food Justice Project is organizing our second three-month-long Rise Up! Summer School program in which we hope to highlight the need for food sovereignty in a time riddled by crises—from the current pandemic to the climate crisis, to financial systems which do not center the interests of ordinary people,” Hutton said.
They are planning on hosting the Summer School program online to coincide with the possible continuation of COVID-19’s regulations. This is the first time the program will be online, so adapting to the new system will take some time, but virtual gatherings have become the norm.
Community is a large part of what makes CAGJ special. Maintaining a strong virtual community is one of their main focuses for the summer program. Hutton elaborated:
“A logistical challenge for us in this new digital world is going to be how to provide a platform which helps foster meaningful relationships among community members and activists in a time where technological fatigue and information overload is even more real, and at a time where the need for human connection and a sense of solidarity is even more vital.”
An increased need for a sense of solidarity is not the only thing that COVID-19 has exposed. The organization has always recognized the cracks in the structural set up of the food system, but COVID-19 has highlighted just how bad these cracks in the system are. The issues regarding food worker treatment and the immense waste and vulnerability of corporate agriculture have always been on the Food Justice Program’s radar. Now the issues are impossible for the general public to ignore.
“Hopefully this new term “essential workers” will really sink into people’s hearts,” Hutton said. “Hopefully recognition of those along the food chain—from people working in the fields, to those serving us in restaurants, to stockers, and processors, and so on—maybe now we as a society will come to appreciate these people for what is truly essential work. It is the work that nourishes us and keeps us all alive and thriving. I hope the gratitude will live on, that it will continue to grow, and that it will translate into more than just a ‘thank you,’ but into real systemic change that values the lives and livelihoods of those who feed us.”
The CAGJ’s mission has been invigorated by COVID-19. The organization was quick to adapt their education efforts and meetings to the virtual world. Keeping a tight-knit community and a keen eye on the progressing food justice issues have always been a high priority for the staff and members of CAGJ. COVID-19 has done nothing but strengthen their resolution to the mission of contesting and rethinking the current food system and encouraging existing alternatives.
Seattle University’s student population is made up of passionate and vocal individuals whose ambition and vigor for hot topics often translate into direct action. Second-year Environmental Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies double major, Taylor McKenzie is no exception. Her affinity for food recovery lead her to an internship with RedHawk dining and the Food Recovery Network. Ultimately she decided her internship topic was in dire need of more attention and wants to start a student club.
Originally a journalism major, Mckenzie had written articles for The Spectator, SU’s newspaper, heavily criticizing the way RedHawk Dining went about their food waste disposal. Upon interning for them she was pleasantly surprised to find that there were some food recovery initiatives already in motion. A portion of the leftover/untouched food leftover in the dining hall is donated to Operation Sack Lunch, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring nutritional equality to the streets of Seattle.
“I found there was a lack of documentation, which is why I had never heard of the initiative before, but we’ve been giving OSL food for years. My internship was not only how can we continue to donate off campus, but also donate on campus. An example of this effort is the OMA food pantry and taking out a chapter with the Food Recovery Network,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie helped kick start SU’s partnership with the Food Recovery Network, a student movement aimed to fight food waste and feed people. She hopes her club will be focused on the Food Recovery Networks mission of donation and advocacy.
“Food recovery and justice can be a tricky issue. It is such a delicate balance between painting an entire group as victims and guaranteeing access to the best quality of food. We need to address the reality of food deserts. We find ways to access food but it may not be the quality and freshness we deserve. How do we bridge that gap? How do we offer culturally sensitive food?” Mckenzie said. “I would like to see more of that conversation.”
A club focused on food recovery is just the beginning for McKenzie. She recognizes the importance of individual action, however, she emphasizes the value in collective action. In her 2020 Earth Talks lecture, she highlighted how collective action is paramount for lasting change.
“I think collective action needs to happen to affect politics which will impact long term changes. No one person is going to save the world. We have to come together,” McKenzie said. “What does it mean to take care of yourself when you are trying to fight? It is about having a community to take the torch when you’re tired. We are stronger together.”
Food justice is an issue that is fairly noncontroversial. Everyone needs to eat, everyone has the right to food, and food waste is benefiting absolutely no one. Therefore, actions taken to reduce food waste deserve the attention and cooperation of everyone under the sun. COVID-19 has only exasperated this truth.
“People now recognize that this is an issue. Coming out of this crisis, how do we show that this has always been an issue,” McKenzie said. “I feel a sense of hope because there are more and more people who are talking about food recovery.”
A sense of hope is the beginning of change. Issues surrounding food waste and sustainability are never going to be completely eradicated, but with passionate student advocacy and an increase in general awareness, there is hope that one day, food justice will be served.
Seattle University had just opened a chapter with the Food Recovery Network, a national organization whose mission is to fight food waste and feed people. Started in 2012 on the campus of the University of Maryland, the Food Recovery Network was made up of concerned students who noticed the amount of waste at their dining halls and wanted to make a change.
Over the course of 10 years, the initiative grew to be a food recovery verified national nonprofit active on over 200 college campuses. There is a national office that offers support, education, and services but the campus chapters are student lead and run. During non-COVID-19 times, they host events such as their Regional Conference and offer different programs dealing with the idea of food recovery and food justice.
However, since COVID-19, the FRN’s programming has changed quite a bit. The closure of college campuses, cooperate campuses, and other businesses that produce food waste have forced the national office to reconsider how to approach things.
“Our chapters have taken a lot of steps to move things online. The regional summits all moved online and we recently hosted virtual graduation where we had our alumni and graduating students convene to celebrate,” Cassie Olovsson, Manager of Stakeholder Engagement at FRN said. “As for our student chapters, we had originally planned the end of the spring semester for the Move Out for Hunger, a collaborative food drive event put on by FRN and another national nonprofit Move for Hunger, but some changes had to be made.”
The Move Out for Hunger drive is usually where student chapters host food drives to collect food from dorms or apartments that would have otherwise gone to waste. Unfortunately, many campuses were forced to close early, so there were some student chapters who banded together and gathered excess food as their peers were moving out.
“We have been talking a lot as a national team about how we can support our students and how they can tap into recovery in their hometowns,” Olovsson said. “We are in the beginning stages of brainstorming how we are going support students on and off-campus. This is going to be something we as a national team are focused on through the summer.”
Although the transition from pre coronavirus to post coronavirus has shaken things up, Olovsson is amazed by the ability of food justice organizations to pivot and adapt to the changing times.
“I think [COVID-19] has challenged a lot of different groups in the food industry to examine their model and think about how we can be better. The pandemic has unearthed a lot of problems that have always existed and it is proving how many issues there really are,” Olovsson said. “Crisis feeds innovation. People are getting innovative and trying to create solutions.”
As millions of people are rendered unemployed as a result of the pandemic and edging towards food insecurity, food justice programs around the nation are reexamining their practices. If you are wondering what you can do, Olovsson encourages anyone who is able to get involved in food recovery at a local level. There are a lot of opportunities at the local level to get involved and make a difference.