Health and the Right to Healthy Food in a Global Pandemic

By James McQuaid

As communities across the United States weather the onslaught of COVID-19, now anticipating the onset of a second, resurging wave, Americans from all walks of life have been debating what our national priorities should be in the face of challenges posed by the virus. One aspect of life under COVID that has received ominously little attention, however, is the need for access to fresh, healthy food. In Detroit, at the start of the 2008 recession, activists called attention to the city’s status as a food desert, which the federal government defines as an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly [in] lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” Since this and other related issues saw national attention, Detroiters have worked to address them through several efforts led by private, public, and community groups alike. Urban farming projects, public initiatives encouraging local, sustainable agriculture, and community food pantries have all chipped away at barriers to quality nutrition.

This work is remarkably important, not only to Americans but on the world stage as well. Internationally, access to healthy food has been tied to increased physical and mental health, while restrictions to access have proven ties to many physiological problems. People who are hungry or poorly nourished are more likely to struggle with maintaining a positive mood and outlook, concentration, and energy throughout their day. More importantly, poor nutrition is tied to higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, depression, and reduced immunity. Essentially, access to healthy, nutritious food serves as one of the more important lines of defense a person has against COVID-19, a virus that has already claimed some 140,000 lives in the US alone. The right to healthy, nutritious food is one that, as a society, we need to take a far greater interest in ensuring for all Americans.

Despite the meaningful and promising efforts made in Detroit over the last decade, however, the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic has only further restricted this crucial access to affordable, healthy food. While fewer Detroit neighborhoods fall under the “food desert” classification today than did ten years ago, unique challenges posed by the virus have exacerbated other problems related to healthy food access, problems that used to be dismissed as negligible. In Detroit, for example, about one-third of residents do not own a car. While Detroit does run a limited public transit service, the greater metropolitan system is often cited as among the worst in the country. Poor funding, inadequate infrastructure, and fragmented policies force Detroiters to grapple with unreliable service and riding times. Seniors, low-income families, and others without access to reliable transportation outside this transit system are forced to choose between riding the city’s bus system, essentially playing roulette with contracting the deadly virus themselves or going without the healthy food available at one of the few full-service grocers within city limits.

Seniors, specifically, are a group that is incredibly susceptible to the virus. How can we ensure they will have access to the quality food needed to stay healthy when for so many, the simple process of going to the store can be a matter of life and death? It has been well documented that infection and fatality rates are skewed along lines of income and race. How can we, as a nation, affirm that Black lives matter when such barriers go uncontested in the realm of federal public policy? Unless these challenges are addressed in a meaningful way, lower-income communities will continue to fall behind in fighting not only COVID-19 but future pandemics, as well. Access to nutritious, healthy food in America’s cities—cities like Detroit—is not only a matter of national importance, it is also a moral issue. It is an issue that needs to be taken seriously and treated as a national emergency because for millions of Americans, it already is one.

James McQuaid is a Ph.D. Candidate of History at Wayne State University.