Institute Insights: April 2020


Robert Wei/iStock photo

From the Director

No one needs to be reminded that the world is very different as Earth Day 2020 approaches than it was on Earth Day 2019. Sadly, any update I write today on total infections and deaths due to COVID-19 will be far out of date as you read this.

Nonetheless, I’m thinking today about 2019, April and Earth Day, which increasingly serve as catalysts for climate action. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist then 16, told global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope … I want you to panic. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.”

Thunberg’s statement applies now more than ever—to climate change, to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of all, to the attitudes and behaviors that contribute to them both: disregard for the well-being of our planet and only home, and neglect of the impact on communities most vulnerable.

The “word of the year” for 2020 could well be “zoonotic.” Insights readers are perhaps most likely to know the word from West Africa’s 2014 Ebola outbreak, which cost more than 11,000 lives. Ebola and COVID-19 are both zoonotic diseases, transmitted from animals to humans. The increasing prevalence of this type of disease is due to human behaviors, according to Dr. Robert Breiman, a medical doctor and infectious disease specialist who has led Centers for Disease Control (CDC) investigations and responses to several disease outbreaks. "If we do nothing," he said, “outbreaks like Covid-19 will continue to occur, and likely accelerate in number.”

The human behavior most responsible for COVID-19 is deforestation, Breiman said. Shrinking habitats for wildlife bring various species in closer contact with humans—and they may carry viruses to which people have no immunity. Deforestation is a significant factor in climate change as well. The role of deforestation in increasing greenhouse gas emissions—and therefore Earth’s temperature—is not something people can immediately notice. COVID-19, of course, was and is immediately noticeable. Despite the stark difference in visibility, both are crises that demand urgent responses.

While officials in a number of countries have made serious mistakes in their response to the pandemic, most also made significant changes almost immediately in an effort to contain the virus. Several countries are currently continuing these measures even as their number of infections has begun to drop. Climate change, on the other hand, has been seen in many ways: as imaginary, real but not caused by human action, real but something that won’t happen until our great-grandchildren’s time, real but only affecting small islands and polar bears… but all too rarely as real and demanding dramatic worldwide changes in people’s thinking and actions. 

One reason the world has been slow to respond to climate change is that the people who first experienced its impacts were mainly in poor and marginalized communities in places considered “remote” by mainstream science. Climate change, as Bread for the World Institute pointed out in our 2017 Hunger Report, is a leading cause of hunger. It is not yet widely recognized as such because, by definition, the people most affected have few resources and little political power.

Those at greater risk of death or deep poverty as a result of COVID-19 are also primarily those with the least power. Their circumstances vary: some are low-wage U.S. workers whose jobs require a great deal of public contact, while others work as farmers in Africa’s rural areas and lack access to running water or soap. But their lack of a voice in public policy is one thing they have in common. COVID-19 and climate change call for immediate measures to prioritize the well-being of those most affected, and for policies that reduce socioeconomic inequities in the near term. They both also call for showing greater appreciation for our planet and how to preserve it—because, as climate activists point out, there is no Planet B.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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Low- and middle-income countries face increased exposure to climate extremes. Source: FAO

The 2020 Hunger Report and the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Todd Post

Bread for the World Institute’s 2020 Hunger Report, Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow, is about the role of food systems in ending hunger and malnutrition. It will be released in late April.

Insights readers may notice that Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow is also the name of Bread for the World’s current Offering of Letters (OL). The 2020 Hunger Report, like the OL, is focused on helping families here in the United States and around the world get the nutrition they need to lead healthy lives.

As we began to make final preparations for the Hunger Report’s release, the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States. Life as many people knew it changed dramatically in a matter of days—mainly in late February through late March, depending on the state. At this writing, which countries and communities will be hit hardest in the end, the impact on the global economy, and how long it will be before people can begin recovery efforts are all unknown. At one point, one-third of the entire global population was on lockdown or “shelter in place,” and this may not turn out to be the highest proportion of the pandemic.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about food systems in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t cover them all here, but I’ll touch on how COVID-19 relates to some of the main issues covered in this year’s Hunger Report.

Food systems are just what the name implies—how societies organize to feed people. The food system is by definition the vehicle for accessing a healthy diet, and, of course, what people eat is the key to improving their nutritional status. Globally, an unhealthy diet is now the leading risk factor for early death. Health problems related to diet, such as diabetes and heart disease, put people at higher risk of death if they contract COVID-19.

Without good nutrition to boost their immune systems, no individuals are well prepared to survive the virus when it arrives in their community. It will become clear that hunger and malnutrition are public health problems that are important all the time, not just during pandemics.

One chapter in the upcoming Hunger Report shows how food systems contribute to climate change. The global food system is responsible for up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The Amazon is being deforested primarily to clear the land for cattle grazing. If people in rich countries ate less meat, it could become possible to halt deforestation and/or begin to reforest various areas. Large reforested areas might even be capable of storing or “sequestering” enough carbon dioxide to begin to reverse climate change. The key is in adapting Western-style diets to promote both health and sustainability.

As mentioned in this issue’s From the Director, deforestation also contributes to human vulnerability to zoonotic diseases. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is caused by an infectious virus that is carried by wildlife, to whom it may or may not be harmful. In this case, bats may have been the original carriers, and an intermediary species that hosted the virus was possibly a type of anteater called a pangolin. Humans clearing vast land areas for food production then came in closer contact with these hosts and contracted the virus themselves. The human species has no immunity to the novel (new to us) coronavirus that first appeared in people sometime in late 2019.

And sadly, this particular coronavirus is obviously harmful to humans.

In a review of scientific studies covering the last 80 years, researchers found that agricultural practices were responsible for 50 percent of zoonotic diseases, and they wrote that the proportion “will likely increase as agriculture expands and intensifies.”

Another aspect of the food system in the Hunger Report is the role of the people who work in various parts of the system to ensure that those around them, and often people in faraway countries as well, have food to eat. During the COVID-19 pandemic, food workers in a wide range of roles remain on the job: planting and harvesting crops, processing food in factories, serving customers in drive-through lines, driving long-distance truck routes, stocking food in the supermarket, and the list goes on.

The U.S. public has gained more appreciation of the importance of food workers since the pandemic began. As more people became aware that few of the workers who prepare and serve their food in restaurants have paid sick leave, public support for requiring employers to provide it has grown. This is both because people are concerned for the workers and because they are concerned for their own safety and the safety of their families.

Around the world, most food system workers have little or no protection—from hunger and disease if their crops fail, from injuries in dangerous workplaces, from losing their jobs if a child is sick or the car breaks down. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, workers whose jobs require frequent interaction with the public are at higher risk of contracting the virus, and they are less likely to have good health insurance coverage if they or their family members become seriously ill. The pandemic underlines the urgency of reducing the deep levels of economic inequality found both between and within countries.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

A woman wearing a protective face mask rides the New York City subway during the coronavirus pandemic. Joel Carillet/iStock photo

Race, Hunger, and COVID-19: The Impact on African Americans

By Marlysa Gamblin

“Does my life really matter? Coming to work means risking my own health. They don’t care about us. Our lives don’t matter to them.” I overheard the conversation of three African American women in staff uniforms as I walked down the aisle of a Dollar Tree.

As an African American woman myself, I wanted so badly to turn around and say, “Yes. Your life does matter.” But while the life of each person has value, I couldn’t assure the workers that our country’s public policies and practices send that message consistently.

Bread for the World Institute emphasizes the importance of applying a racial equity lens to efforts to end hunger and reach other goals, which now include responding to the most recent global challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The many persistent disparities between African Americans and white Americans—health, income, and wealth, among others—are what lead advocates to believe that African Americans are likely to be at higher risk from COVID-19. An effective response to the pandemic that, at a bare minimum, does not exacerbate existing inequities will require applying a racial equity lens to all COVID-19 responses, in order to compensate for the strikingly inequitable realities that African American communities live with.

Many factors make African Americans more vulnerable to severe illness from the virus. African Americans already have more health problems than whites, including  higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. This, coupled with the racism that African Americans face in the healthcare system that often leads to under-diagnosis and under-treatment, increases the likelihood that African Americans who contract the virus will become severely ill.

This is one of the reasons that it is problematic that African Americans face additional risk because they disproportionately work in jobs that require their physical presence, exposing them to the virus at higher rates than those who can isolate themselves at home. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the country’s 10 lowest-paying jobs, jobs that entail contact with many people, such as being a cashier or home health aide.

Racially inequitable policies that created racial housing segregation have meant that low-income African Americans are three times as likely to live in an area of concentrated poverty as low-income whites. Such neighborhoods have poverty rates of 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, or more and lead to crowded conditions that make it difficult or impossible to maintain the recommended social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Areas of concentrated poverty are also more likely to have high levels of air pollution. People with asthma and other lung problems are more susceptible to a respiratory illness such as COVID-19.

Finally, public transit is another environment conducive to acquiring COVID-19 since it is frequently crowded. Yet it is often the only option for African Americans living in areas of concentrated poverty to get to work and a full-service grocery store to buy nutritious food for their families. This suggests that social distancing is more of a privilege than something everyone is able to do to protect their health.

In both good and bad economies, the African American unemployment rate is significantly higher than that of whites. Analysts expect that COVID-19 will cause an economic recession, potentially quite severe, that is highly likely to affect African Americans more severely. The racial wealth divide between whites and African Americans means that many African American families have little or no financial cushion in difficult economic times such as the COVID-19 era. Those who contract the virus will have higher healthcare costs. They are less likely to have paid sick leave and therefore more likely to lose income. They could lose their jobs if they are unable to work for even a couple of days. This will worsen food insecurity and other problems.

Groups such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies have already convened African American leaders to identify policies in response to COVID-19 that promote racial equity and center the needs of African American communities. Ending global hunger calls for everyone—the entire world population—to prioritize racial equity in their responses to the pandemic.

Marlysa Gamblin is domestic policy advisor, specific populations, with Bread for the World Institute.

Planetary Health Plate. The EAT Lancet Commission

A Diet That Is Healthy for People and the Planet

By Lauren Kissela

Quite a few people have asked why Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization, is so active on climate change issues. But human diets and the climate are related in many ways. Bread for the World Institute’s 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, has a detailed analysis of why climate change is now one of the main causes of global hunger.

But here is a brief summary. Food systems—meaning simply the way people organize to get their food and nutrients—contribute to climate change. Agriculture produces 10 percent to 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions are from a combination of factors related to food fermentation, decomposition, and synthetic and natural fertilizers, as well as the destruction of large amounts of land that sequesters carbon dioxide, such as forests, to convert them to livestock grazing areas.

Climate change has destructive effects on agriculture that can make it even harder for people in vulnerable groups to get the food they need. Loss of land from rising sea levels reduces the land available to grow food. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events destroy the harvests of more farmers than before. Climate change includes altering weather patterns and seasonal norms on which agriculture depends.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide exposure cause plants to lose some of their nutritional value. Scientists have not yet pinpointed exactly how this happens, but perhaps the most accepted hypothesis is that some plants produce more carbohydrates because they absorb a higher proportion of carbon dioxide from the air versus micronutrients in the soil. Producing more carbohydrates dilutes the density of micronutrients.

Finding solutions to food insecurity is now even more difficult since the impacts of climate change can include reducing both the quantity and the quality of food. Climate and diet have a mutually reinforcing relationship: people’s diets can worsen climate change, and climate change can worsen diet and nutrition.

The EAT Lancet Commission, affiliated with the U.K. medical journal The Lancet, brought together a group of scientists to develop a recommended “plate” for both planetary and human health. The plate features about 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 13 percent whole grains, 12 percent plant-sourced protein, 10 percent unsaturated plant oils, and very small amounts (less than 5 percent) of added sugars, animal-sourced protein, dairy, and starchy vegetables. What we grow and eat is at the intersection of human and climate health—hence the commission’s efforts to describe a diet that can improve the health of both.

Determining what should be on a healthy “plate” and sharing this information widely is important, but it is quite difficult for some people and communities to eat according to the recommendations. Lack of money, lack of knowledge, or lack of control over one’s own life and decision making are all potential barriers to eating healthy foods and excluding empty calories. They can also make people more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Bread for the World Institute has begun to develop an interactive challenge that simulates various barriers to eating a healthy diet. Many reflect the effects of economic inequality as well as of inequities based on race, gender, religion, and other identity traits.

Participants in “Chopped: How Diets Shape the World” will be able to experience firsthand how income, geographical location, and other life circumstances affect the dietary options of people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, a smallholder farmer in Kenya loses a significant portion of her income when changing weather patterns reduce her crop yields. She has less food to feed her children and family members, and less money to buy foods that she cannot grow that would improve their nutritional status.

Changing agricultural conditions have a much smaller effect on a middle-income household in the United States, on the other hand, because there is enough money to pay higher prices for fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. Nutritious dietary options are therefore plentiful, and this family remains food secure.

Finalizing the challenge and its associated resources has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but work on the project continues. The Institute will publicize the Chopped: Healthy Diets for People and Planet challenge and information about complementary materials once we have a release date.

Lauren Kissela is a Climate and Nutrition intern with Bread for the World Institute.

Aya Community Market in Northeast Washington, D.C. Joseph Molieri for Bread for the World

Equitable Access to Organic Foods: Why It Matters

By Christian Martinez

Initial data on COVID-19 in the United States indicates that African Americans are a disproportionate share, often a highly disproportionate share, of the Americans lost to the pandemic. The Washington Post reported that in Milwaukee County, WI, about 28 percent of the population is African American, but 73 percent of those who had died as of April 6 were African American.

One key reason is that African Americans are more likely to have underlying health conditions, which are associated with higher COVID-19 mortality rates. Bread for the World Institute frequently emphasizes that nutrition and health are closely linked. Ensuring that African Americans and other people of color have equitable access to nutritious foods must be a top priority. The evidence indicates that it is a matter of life and death. See Race, Hunger, and COVID-19 for more on the pandemic’s impacts on African Americans.

Foods that are organically grown are considered particularly healthy for people and the environment, but many people of color lack access to them. Meeting the global goal of ending hunger by 2030—while responding to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic—calls for applying a racial equity lens to organic foods as well as to other nutritious foods. This must encompass the complete supply chain, including marketing, pricing, and distribution. The goal of reexamining access to organic foods is to help ensure that people of color living with food insecurity can benefit from foods that are affordable, available near their homes, and culturally appropriate.

Organic foods are also healthier for the planet—critically important given the urgency of responding to climate change—because by definition, they are grown without synthetic fertilizers. Less use of harmful products enhances biodiversity and soil fertility. Synthetic fertilizers can threaten biodiversity—for example, the runoff may contaminate a nearby pond, harming the animals and plants living there.

Consuming foods that are grown in a sustainable way also improves the health and well-being of individuals. One reason for this is that the nutrient content is richer as a result of not using synthetic chemicals, which harm the soil.

Despite its benefits for the Earth and human health, organic foods are often not distributed in places where people of color experiencing food insecurity tend to shop. Farmers markets and boutique organic grocery stores are often in predominately white neighborhoods that are in more convenient locations, with residents who have higher incomes.

The United States has a high level of food insecurity overall; many people must make difficult choices as to whether to purchase enough food (quantity) or to purchase less food that has greater nutritional value (quality). But because of the racial wealth divide, people of color confront these dilemmas more often than white people.

This is concerning for many reasons. One is that people of color already suffer health disparities compared to whites—and these medical conditions are often sustained or worsened by a diet that lacks sufficient nutrients and is high in sugar and sodium. For example, obesity is higher among African American and Latino adults than among whites. In 2015-2016, the obesity rates were  47 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

Health disparities based on race persist partly because people who live in areas of concentrated poverty have limited access to grocery stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables. Researchers have found, for example, that African American neighborhoods have a high concentration of fast food chains, but a low concentration of supermarkets. The over-marketing of fast food is another component of the problem. In some neighborhoods, it seems as though billboards advertising one or another popular fast food chain appear block after block after block. Low-income people of color are far more likely than low-income whites to live in areas of concentrated poverty. The neighborhood’s only places to buy food to prepare at home may be corner stores that carry predominantly highly processed foods with unhealthy amounts of sodium and/or sugar.

The flip side of this problem is that the prices of organic foods are often prohibitive for people in lower-income neighborhoods, and organic foods are under-marketed in these communities or not marketed at all. Some potential customers may not be aware of the range of foods available, including varieties that are more likely to be affordably priced. A better balance between exposure to fast food and organic food could boost nutrition in the neighborhood. This is especially important for children of color, who are disproportionately targeted by ads for unhealthy foods.

Change could yield many benefits, including starting to close chronic racial health divides that are related to access to healthy foods. It will require partnerships among a variety of people, such as neighborhood residents, shop owners, organic farmers, local government, schools, and so on. Starting in a sustainable way, such as by offering opportunities for conversations among the various stakeholders, will be important to obtaining “buy in” and achieving results.

Ending hunger by 2030 is not only about making sure that people have food, but about ensuring that nutritious foods are equitable in price and location. This can only be achieved through sustainable and equitable practices in the way organic food and other healthy food is priced, marketed, and distributed. Strengthening the health and nutritional status of African American communities is not only a significant step toward ending hunger, but will also save lives during crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Christian Martinez is a Racial Equity and Hunger intern with Bread for the World Institute.


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