By Reed Cooley
Imagine… It’s Thanksgiving Day, and you’re at home about to eat with your family.
On a day traditionally defined by the warmth of being reunited with distant loved ones, the all-too-familiar scent of oven-roasted turkey and pecan pie, and more kinds of casserole than should ever be socially acceptable, you find yourself instead at a dreary, quiet table of cold leftovers, ramen noodles, and the sad faces of the people you see every day. As you try and pretend the situation doesn’t bother you, the person next to you takes your hand and says, “It’s okay. Things will get better soon.”
A depressing thought, isn’t it? Yet this picture inches ever-nearer to reality for millions of Americans as another wave of COVID-induced lockdowns sends food insecurity soaring past Great Recession levels. To make matters worse, politicians like Govs. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), Kate Brown (D-Ore.), and Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) have begun instating household occupancy limits to prevent Americans from gathering in large numbers in private residences. In order to avert the prospect of a paltry, lonely Thanksgiving, however, hurting families must be able to accumulate food and resources from their neighbors and relatives—an undertaking only made more difficult by government lockdowns.
In June, the Brookings Institution published a study indicating that 27.5 percent of American households were experiencing some degree of food insecurity, including roughly 14 million children. Recent data from Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research also suggests that, between January and May, food insecurity had doubled nationwide and “tripled among households with children,” an estimate further confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent report on food security.
With food insecurity sweeping so many American households, a serious, research-oriented approach to understanding the issue could hardly be more critical. For decades, academics have studied food insecurity in an effort to understand the factors behind it and the strategies whereby disadvantaged populations often cope with it. Research from anthropologists and sociologists alike strongly confirms the notion that large, family-style gatherings—like those that government lockdowns are preventing—are vital for millions of food insecure families.
In 1998, the Food Research and Action Center launched a study involving 16 focus groups and 141 participants across North Carolina. The study found that “social networks” (defined simply as “family, friends, and neighbors”) served as the primary food source among respondents, placing higher than churches, civic organizations, and government programs. Within these social networks, the majority of participants reported that they “relied on family members first, followed by friends, and then neighbors.”
A separate study conducted at the University of Central Florida in 2015 indicated that as many as 33 percent of food insecure Americans depend on holidays as one of few opportunities throughout the year to share food with relatives and neighbors. Four years later, anthropologists Mesfin Bezuneh and Zelealem Yiheyis at Clark Atlanta University administered a survey in two public housing communities in Atlanta, hoping to understand coping strategies and mental health trends among urban, food insecure populations. Their survey indicated that as many as 45.3 percent of respondents depended on “help from relatives, friends, and community organizations” in order to obtain food.
Allowing voluntary association to solve our societal ills is not just a talking point; it already operates around us every day, bringing our communities together and waiting for us to recognize the benefits it alone provides. The ignorance of this among pro-lockdown politicians should infuriate the American people, especially as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) — caught in the midst of his own Marie Antoinette moment — offers halfhearted apologies for having dined with his friends at the luxurious French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif. earlier this month.
While outrage at the hypocrisy and inefficacies of government is necessary, it is not nearly enough. The time is long past due to adopt a smart, scientifically literate, and socially conscious approach to how we, as a nation, respond to times of crisis.