Though I’m a vegetarian myself, I have always seen diet as a somewhat peripheral lifestyle choice on the political level. But over the course of the past six months, as the globe has struggled to contain the Coronavirus, I have modified my views. Indeed, as I noted in a previous essay, the one common thread which runs through our dire pandemic predicament is health and nutrition. Our meat-based diet, which is linked to factory farms and climate change, has exacerbated underlying health conditions and made people more susceptible to disease. On the other hand, disruptions to global food and supply chains have highlighted the risks to health and safety, and such upheavals force us to rethink our day-to-day food choices. In particular, COVID-19 could lead to ground-breaking change within the urban milieu as I will explain.
As we learn more frightening details about the meatpacking industry, the full extent of the food crisis has been placed on vivid display. With workers in meat-processing facilities coming down with Coronavirus due to dangerous conditions, many plants were forced into temporary shutdowns. The meatpacking industry has been sent into further decline by the closing of restaurants and hotels, which left many ranchers with no place to send their animals. That, in turn, prompted producers to wastefully “cull” millions of farm animals. This downward spiral led to meat shortages, while also encouraging a spike in the price of beef and pork.
“The ripple effects of the virus are now being felt across the entire meat supply chain, all the way to grocery store freezers,” the New York Times has noted. Reportedly, with meat demand plummeting both domestically and around the world, the U.S. could be left with a meat glut. Indeed, observers predict that per capita meat consumption will decline this year and will continue to do so until at least 2025. “Over time,” adds Vox, “there is evidence that the American food supply will be more chaotic and unpredictable…Along the way, more poorly paid workers in meatpacking plants will probably die. More animals will die, perhaps millions more. Some farmers might lose their land.”
As Vox notes, meat has become entwined with American national identity and needless to say the meat industry is well connected politically in Washington. And yet, with the emergence of Coronavirus, the downsides to our dietary choices have become ever more apparent. Consider, for a moment, that factory farms contribute to climate change and dangerous carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions, to say nothing of the cruel, unsanitary and inhuman conditions in which animals are housed. As if that was not enough, such farms also run the risk of spreading so-called “zoonotic” diseases which leap from animals to people. Overall, investors are warning that COVID-19 and fears over future pathogens could be the “straw that breaks the meat industry’s back,” with financial losses to the U.S. cattle industry estimated at more than $13 billion.
Boris Johnson: Food Icon?
Amidst our collective health crisis, many in Britain have taken stock and are making some critical lifestyle changes, which is hardly surprising given that the U.K. has the world’s third-highest death toll from Coronavirus. Historically, obesity has represented a growing problem and placed pressure on the country’s National Health Service (NHS). Indeed, Britain is usually near the top of lists of Europe’s fattest nations, with statistics showing that almost two thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese. Authorities, meanwhile, have warned of a consistent link between overweight individuals and high risk of falling ill from COVID-19.
Hardly known as a progressive firebrand, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson no less has urged his citizens to embrace lifestyle changes. Johnson, who was hospitalized himself for COVID-19, has admitted that he was “way overweight” when he was admitted to hospital and has linked his own poor state of health to a close brush with death. Since recovering, the Prime Minister has started to exercise and run, taking off more than fourteen pounds. Johnson has encouraged others to do the same, in light of the fact that “losing weight is frankly one of the ways you can reduce your own risks from COVID.”
From Nutrition to Ecotopia?
Recently, Johnson has called for a “Better Health” strategy to counteract high obesity in the midst of the pandemic. The effort marks a significant shift from the politician’s earlier disdain for the so-called “nanny state.” Indeed, the Prime Minister once made fun of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who had campaigned to ban junk food from school meals. “If I was in charge,” Johnson remarked, “I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like.” Now, however, Johnson’s government has urged overweight citizens to lose around five pounds which, it is hoped, will result in great savings for the NHS.
In an effort to enlist public support, the NHS has expanded “weight management” services. The authorities have also banned advertisements of junk food on TV before 9 p.m., so as to avoid hours when children are most prone to be watching. What is more, all large restaurants and cafes shall be obliged to add calorie counts to their menus. In tandem with its nationwide health ad campaign, the government is specifically targeting black, Asian and minority communities, which are disproportionately prone to obesity and COVID-19. Some have hailed the authorities’ efforts for going much further than previous campaigns, while public health advocates are hoping Johnson’s initiatives will help to “kick start a health revolution for the nation.”
Though certainly devastating, COVID-19 and disruptions to the food supply chain have spurred many to explore the connections between urban renewal and public health. Take, for example, the city of Paris which has closed off 60 miles of streets to be opened up for cyclists and pedestrians only. By 2024, authorities hope to make every street bicycle-friendly while eliminating most on-street parking. The U.K., meanwhile, has made similar strides: as part of Johnson’s health initiative, people are being encouraged to cycle to work, and doctors may even prescribe cycling to patients as a means of losing weight.
Amidst a surge in cycling during the pandemic, London has banned cars from large portions of the central city, while municipal authorities anticipate a fivefold increase in walking and a tenfold increase in cycling. At the same time, many British towns and cities have made more road space available to pedestrians and cyclists. “Fix your bike” vouchers have been offered as part of the government’s plan to boost active travel, cycle lessons will be provided for all who want them, and funding has been allocated for e-bikes and new cycle friendly areas, known as “mini-Hollands.” Between new cycling routes and vouchers, the government will invest $2.6 billion in the new cycling strategy. By cutting down on pollution, the government will furthermore improve people’s health in the midst of the pandemic. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that such air pollution leads to increased Coronavirus infections, hospital admissions and deaths.
Campaigners have hailed Johnson’s moves as “unprecedented” and “the biggest step forward for active travel” in a lifetime. The public seems to have embraced the challenge: in the midst of the pandemic, many Brits are reducing the amount of meat they consume so as to fight the climate crisis, and 75 percent say they are willing to undertake one lifestyle change over the next year to help save the planet. Moreover, more than a fifth of the population plans to eat more locally-grown food, and sales of meat-free products have been booming. Meanwhile, a large majority of adults favors the government’s moves to ban junk food ads on television before 9 P.M., and British drivers are reportedly willing to walk more or cycle while driving less so as to protect the environment, thereby maintaining cleaner air during lockdown.
American Nutritional Dystopia
Amidst all the discussion about nutrition and public transportation in Europe, the U.S. seems to have been sidelined. Indeed, at the national level, the public is woefully under-informed about such matters as evidenced by ludicrous and made-up scandals. The Trump administration, for example, has claimed that Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris wants to put an end to beef production. In actuality, however, Harris has merely prioritized healthy eating, arguing that the government should incentivize and change dietary guidelines so as to reduce consumption of red meat.
The need for holding debates on such matters is long overdue: agriculture represents ten percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and many have grown wary of the meat industry amidst COVID-19 health scares. Belatedly, Congress may finally get down to addressing the need for redesigning the nation’s food system, as calls increase to eliminate America’s largest concentrated animal feeding operations.
Such moves could not have come sooner, since a whopping ninety four percent of COVID-19 related deaths are comprised of individuals with underlying age-related chronic disease. Not surprisingly, most of these conditions are related to excess body fat. “We’ve created the perfect environment for COVID-19 to thrive, thanks to our broken food system,” notes the Boston Globe. “If we want to flatten the curve, protect our economy, and be more resistant to future pandemics, it is imperative we reduce diet-related chronic disease and obesity in America.”
Nutrition and Race in the Pandemic
As per the U.K., low-income and minority populations have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, which is probably due to poor diet and a toxic food environment. Since African Americans suffer from underlying conditions to a greater extent than whites and other racial groups, they are more prone to Coronavirus as a result, and this in turn helps to explain disparities in the proportion of deaths stemming from the pandemic. In fact, even though blacks represent 22 percent of New York’s population, they account for 28 percent of the deaths from COVID-19.
In addition to African Americans, Latinos have also paid a significant price during the pandemic. Undocumented and refugee workers have been exposed to the virus within the meat-packing industry, which in turn has prompted the Iowa chapter of the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization to call for a consumer meat boycott. The ongoing crisis in meat-packing plants has become so acute that PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has offered to train slaughterhouse workers to make vegan meat.
No Silver Lining
Even as cities like Paris and London move expeditiously to address health and nutrition in the midst of COVID-19, the U.S. has lagged far behind. Despite the importance of creating open space as a means of heading off Coronavirus, Washington has shown little interest in spending on bicycle lanes or sidewalks. But while lack of Republican leadership at the top is fairly predictable, Democratic politicians have also displayed a limited ability to imagine a world without cars at the city-wide level.
Such failures to find the “silver lining” in the Coronavirus response are all the more disappointing in light of the fact that transportation represents the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Even more glaringly, car pollution reportedly increases the risk from contracting COVID-19, since exposure to airborne pollutants has been linked to a higher Coronavirus death rate. What is more, Americans are in desperate need of more daily exercise, since only five percent report getting thirty minutes of such exercise per day, while approximately forty percent say they haven’t even spent more than ten minutes walking over the past week.
“Americans do not love exercise,” notes Time magazine, rather unsurprisingly. On the other hand, perhaps more people could be persuaded to perform outdoor exercise as opposed to heading to the gym, an undesirable option in the midst of the pandemic. According to surveys, however, it’s not just the virus which is keeping people away from the gym, but also an intrinsic aversion to working out there. In this sense, American cities failure to create more open spaces is disillusioning on multiple levels, since research shows that performing any regular physical activity, regardless of whether it is outdoors or indoors, lowers the risk of developing chronic diseases while lengthening lifespan.
Lackluster New York
New York has been particularly disappointing: though the city has blocked off a miniscule percentage of road networks to allow for greater social distancing, authorities have avoided making larger or more permanent fixes. The de Blasio administration’s failure is all the more vexing given early windows of opportunity. With people entering into lockdown, air pollution plummeted, revealing brilliant blue skies, and the city went a record two months without a single traffic-related pedestrian fatality. Rollerblading and skateboarding came back into fashion, and sales of bicycles and electric bikes surged. Unfortunately, drivers are now hitting the road again, emissions are surging, and, worst of all, many New Yorkers are purchasing new cars, which in turn has given rise to increased demand for parking spots. As a result, there is a chaotic “battle” between cyclists and pedestrians on the one hand, and motorists on the other, to see who will control the city’s 6,000 miles of streets.
Though he espouses progressive politics, critics argue that de Blasio is at heart a pro-motorist mayor who failed to seize the moment. Oddly enough, officials failed to sufficiently build on wildly popular pre-pandemic initiatives which transferred street space away from cars. Instead, authorities opted for a piecemeal approach in which the city added batches of open streets every few weeks, announced a few new busways and expanded temporary and outdoor dining. In contrast to this political inertia, visionary urban planners have proposed everything from turning the Brooklyn Bridge into something more like the High Line, to banning privately owned cars in Manhattan and expanding sidewalks and two-way bike lanes which would replace car lanes. Transportation Alternatives, which has advocated for safer and more equitable New York streets for almost fifty years, has hammered de Blasio for failing to put forward an ambitious vision. Currently, the organization notes, the mayor’s “Open Streets” plan “remains a disconnected network of public space islands with management challenges.”
Promoting Racial Justice and Nutrition in New York
With the mayor failing to rise to the occasion, other city leaders have put forward more creative and dynamic initiatives. Take, for example, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who even before the pandemic had become a critic of the climate-unfriendly meat industry. Adams, who is African American, became a vegan to deal with his own underlying health challenges, and after making the switch to a plant-based diet, he was able to reverse his diabetes. The politician, moreover, has promoted veganism in the community and has sought to inform millions of constituents about how to counter diabetes.
In tandem with such efforts, Adams touted his so-called Jumpstart Your Health 10-Day Brooklyn Challenge, in which residents were encouraged to embrace a plant-based diet. If that was not enough, the politician championed a plant-based medicine program at local hospitals and supported plans to offer vegan lunches at all public schools. In short order, he eliminated sugary beverages and unhealthy snacks from vendor machines at Brooklyn Borough Hall; promoted a health newsletter; convened business events which incorporated healthy eating, and even distributed nutrition fliers to the public at train stations.
In the midst of the pandemic, with blacks and Latinos suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, Adams has pushed his health campaign into overdrive, urging more African Americans to become vegan. In an innovative move, the politician has been involved in distributing plant-based meals to local residents. Within Brooklyn Borough Hall, the politician loaned out a working space to Chilis on Wheels, a charity that supports Black Lives Matter and brings vegan meals to the homeless and needy families. Local government also promoted the “Plants to the People” partnership, which brought together Mercy for Animals, an animal rights organization, and Community Solidarity, a hunger relief charity, to distribute plant-based meals to the food insecure.
However horrific, COVID-19 may encourage some positive “silver linings.” Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier essay, pandemics have often proven to be “game changers.” While we’re still nowhere near approaching urban “ecotopia,” circumstances will hopefully prompt local leaders to embrace a radical agenda which will address an array of issues ranging from climate change to racial justice to animal rights to nutrition to public space and transportation.