Sawyer Series: “Bread and Water,” Food Insecurity and Sickness

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation granted Carnegie Mellon University $225,000 for a 2019-2020 Sawyer Seminar on “Bread and Water: Access, Belonging and Environmental Justice in the City.” The seminar brought international scholars together with Pittsburgh-area experts to uncover the barriers and limits to urban food and water systems in comparative perspective.

The “Bread and Water” series ended earlier than expected due to the outbreak of COVID-19. As the global pandemic continues to impact food security and water access in urban environments, issues raised by the Sawyer Seminar continue to grow in relevance.

The “Bread and Water” seminar was created by the Department of History‘s Abigail Owen, assistant teaching professor and faculty advisor for the minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, and John Soluri, associate professor and director of Global Studies. Their view of food access was shaped explicitly by the scholars and experts who shared their experiences for the seminar.

According to Owen, access to food is directly tied to income. The pandemic highlights how tenuous this relationship is during a crisis.

“Access to food is usually about money,” said Owen. “With so many people losing their jobs because of the crisis, they are less able to afford food. And for some people, they were already struggling to afford food before the pandemic, and this crisis exacerbates the preexisting issue.”

Owen believes that the immediate solution for solving food issues during the pandemic is giving people greater access to what Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen calls “entitlements.”

“An entitlement of food means that an individual is able to afford the food they need,” said Owen. “If people have low or no income, it’s harder for people and their families to have access to the food they need.”

Soluri echoes similar sentiments about the impact of food insecurity during the pandemic, and how the wealth of an individual reflects not just the food on the table.

“Our economy is in what the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls an “induced coma,” with massive increases of people applying for unemployment benefits,” said Soluri. “People who work in “food chains” — farming, food processing or supermarkets — are “essential” workers yet they often receive inadequate healthcare benefits, low wages and now are more at risk of contracting the virus on the job.”

Soluri said he believes that environmental justice is important because although environmental and public health problems affect everyone, they rarely affect everyone equally. “Differences in social class, along with racial or gender status or even your age, can play a determining role in your ability to react to environmental change, including this pandemic,” he said.

Pittsburgh expert Ken Regal was invited to take part in the “Bread and Water” series. He is the executive director of Just Harvest, an Allegheny County organization that educates, empowers and mobilizes people to eliminate hunger, poverty and economic injustice in our communities by influencing public policy, engaging in advocacy and connecting people to public benefits.

The pandemic has affected the workload and production of the organization immensely.

For example, Just Harvest helps in preparing food stamps applications for low income individuals. Regal reports that, “since the pandemic, we have seen twice the number of applications being submitted for food stamps coming through our doors and needing to be processed.”

Just Harvest is also the largest provider of free income tax preparation services in Allegheny County, helping thousands of workers receive the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credit.

“We are working on transitioning to remote and virtual services in order to continue helping the local community in processing tax forms,” said Regal. “The stimulus check being given by the government has the ability to affect individuals who might not have been able to access food for days.”

Regal attests to the importance of the Sawyer Seminar in breaking down barriers between academic and non-academic perspectives on food issues.

“My experience of seeing the Sawyer Seminar and participating in the event is about finding the commonalities between food issues that people in Louisiana, in Cairo, in Pittsburgh and other places experience today,” said Regal. “These commonalities are going to become increasingly apparent and increasingly important as the pandemic continues.”

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