Oregon State University
“La gente tiene que comer.” (“People have to eat”), my mother replied when I decided to study Nutrition and Food Science, believing that such a career was going to result in a well-paid job offer once I graduated from college, especially in Mexico —a country whose population has grappled with metabolic illness for nearly 30 years, but also whose cuisine is considered Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2010). When I began looking for employment during my last semester, however, I was confronted with the reality: only a small number of dietitians are able to secure the steady and well-compensated job I envisioned for myself at the tender age of 18. The rest will most likely have to set up private practices—a service that the general population associates more with unattainable beauty standards than with long-term health and wellbeing. In addition, a traumatic event during my first-ever experience within a hospital left me dreading working in one; this significantly reduced my options either to private consultation or to institutional food services. In the latter, I would have had to harshly enforce company policies against kitchen employees “stealing” food, even if their reason to do so was an exploitative salary that made them unable to feed themselves and their families. I learned from this job hunting experience the sad truth: the hard work of insuring that all people have access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food —a most basic human need— is almost worthless within the Mexican economy.
Fast-forward to April 5th, 2020. I am browsing through my social media and navigating the waves of COVID-19 news —fake, veracious, and questionable—, and I stumble upon a post a friend and fellow Food Studies scholar shared (Image 1). In the image, the statement “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?” is displayed in all caps, along with pictures of the fresh produce one fortunately can still easily find in grocery stores here in Corvallis, Oregon (USA), where I have been living for the past two years while I obtain my Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and governments worldwide issue orders of social distancing and staying at home, concerns in regards to food supply arise, along with images of panic buying that have left grocery store shelves completely empty. A dear friend living in a village in Italy —where stone-built houses from the 13th century stood strong and tall through two World Wars— describes these images as evidence for “a war without bombs”.
Since —as my mother wisely says—people have to eat not only to keep a strong immune system in these times of epidemiological emergency, but also for physiological need, those working at any point of the food production and supply chain are now deemed as “essential workers”:
- The farmworkers —whether international or national immigrants— who endure long hours of hard work in the fields for barely livable salaries and little-to-no access to social services;
- Chefs and food servers currently struggling to keep their businesses afloat with take-out curbside pickup and delivery options;
- Store clerks constantly re-stocking shelves, cleaning, and sanitizing, while also maintaining a friendly attitude towards the customers; and
- Many other intermediaries that are vital for families all over the world to have nutritious food on the table.
This status of “essential workers” issued to people working in the food production system, however, adds an enormous amount of pressure, for they must now work double or triple to keep up with the increased food demand that panic buying has caused. In the process, their contagion risk grows. Becoming “essential workers” in the eyes of the public —even though they always have been so because, again, la gente tiene que comer— does not necessarily translate into better, or even decent, working conditions. Half of all recently declared “essential” farmworkers in the US are undocumented, which makes them still ineligible for almost all public benefits (Bacon 2020), such as Medicaid and SNAP or WIC benefits. In this small college town in Oregon where I sit to write this (around 60,000 people), I have already signed three hazard pay and safety precautions petitions for employees working at different local grocery stores.
At the end of one of my classes in a course called Advanced Medical Anthropology, Dr. Melissa Cheyney asked us what a possible silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic might be. I replied that it made me hopeful observing on social media that as people are encouraged to stay home, they are starting to cook more and more elaborated recipes, either as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and/or boredom or as an effort to comply with the WHO’s “eat healthy” recommendation to protect their health from COVID-19. I myself have uploaded a few pictures to my Instagram stories of new foods and dishes I have recently experimented with, particularly baked goods. My anxiety and feelings of isolation and loneliness have made me crave certain comfort foods that I cannot simply go out to purchase at a store. I even tend to accompany each picture with the phrase: “Keeping sanity through cooking”.
People are finally realizing the importance of food in their lives, as well as just how hard “essential workers” must labor to make our eating possible. A friend from high school and her partner had been complying with the “stay at home” order when they decided to make quesadillas de chicharrón prensado from scratch. From the preparation of the Guajillo chili pepper salsa to their improvised tortilla press using two plates with which they shaped the masa, my friend documented the whole process and shared it as Instagram stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed going through. However, what stayed with me as food for thought (no pun intended) was her final story —a message in which she acknowledged the amount of time and effort that just went into cooking foods that we Mexican urbanites so often take for granted when we unthinkingly purchase inexpensive antojitos from female street vendors, whose own diets depend greatly on their daily earnings. At this very moment, these women cannot afford to take a single day off to stay at home, let alone consider a prolonged quarantine.
I feel optimistic seeing people in their kitchens re-connecting with their own food and building community around it, from young professionals in Mexico City currently engaging in home-office, to celebrities, such as comedian Iliza Schlesinger with partner chef Noah Galuten. These two in particular are doing “#DontPanicPantry”— a series of live cooking tutorials in which the couple prepares a variety of nurturing dishes using pantry staples present in most US homes. They even hosted a virtual Passover Seder, which —as an Ashkenazi Jew celebrating Passover alone for the first time— I appreciated greatly.
I have also seen people back home in Mexico City going beyond just cooking food and starting to grow their own, whether they live in a house with a garden or in a small apartment with nothing more than perhaps a small balcony where they can place a couple of pots. People in both Mexico and the US are supporting local businesses by ordering food and sharing pictures of it, making sure to refer viewers to said business’ accounts through their social media handles. Others have begun to seek out and enroll in CSA programs with local farms. The Central de Abasto in Mexico City —considered the biggest market in the world—will not only continue operating, but has also implemented a delivery service. Here in Corvallis, university-based institutions at OSU —specifically the Coalition of Graduate Employees and the Human Services Resource Center— have established mutual aid services for “all students and community members regardless of their citizenship status (Hurtado Moreno 2020)”; food assistance is one of their major pillars.
“La gente tiene que comer”, my mother says. People have to eat indeed, but we needed a major life-disruptor like COVID-19 to open our eyes to the incredible amount of human work that goes into producing, distributing, and cooking food in order to be able to do so— pandemic or not. This experience has enabled us to see how fragile the current global food production system can be. As the situation unfolds, my hope is that more people will realize this and truly value these “always-essential workers”, advocate for the rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable, and continue taking actions towards food sovereignty that have already been set in motion through these and other acts of solidarity we are all witnessing virtually.
Lisa Grabinsky is a Mexican Fulbright Scholar in her second year of the Applied Anthropology MA program at Oregon State University, minoring in Food in Culture and Social Justice.