Crisis Within a Crisis: COVID-19 Leads the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to Shine a Light on Food in Cities

UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Calls Food and Hunger a “Crisis Within a Crisis” of COVID-19



Food often suffers from the problem that it can’t get no respect as a public policy issue.

But the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has been quick off the mark to produce a flurry of food-related briefings reminding people that food policy must stay front and center — and not be overshadowed by narrowly-conceived public health campaigns centred on washing hands and staying isolated at home.

The FAO is in a unique position to know that the need for social distance and hand-washing to prevent the spread of contagious diseases come second for millions of people who struggle daily for enough food to keep body and soul together.

Isolation can’t be practiced without access to safe food anymore than hand-washing can be practiced without access to clean water.

Chronic and extreme hunger represent what Dominique Burgeon, FAO director for emergencies and resilience, calls the “crisis within a crisis” — a hunger crisis compounding a health crisis for some two billion people living in informal urban settlements and working in an informal, gig or precariat urban economy.

Their needs are highlighted in the FAO’s paper on urban food systems and COVID-19, one of the FAO’s few prominent postings to focus on cities.

Until 2008 — when grain shortages and price hikes provoked rioting by the urban poor in some 40 centers, most notably across northern Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring — the FAO treated rural poverty and food production as its core and primary mandate.

With this new publication, issued in the midst of a world crisis, the catch-up on a city-food nexus is well underway. Food and cities will henceforth be coupled, as will food and health. Food is no longer an urban afterthought.

Hunger issues affecting workers in the urban and rural informal economy, who enjoy no job benefits or job security, spill over into the wheel room of the food system itself — with devastating results for social distancing as a viable protective measure. Over 90 percent of agricultural workers in developing economies are casuals, says a newly-released FAO publication on informal workers. The posting also adds that such issues related to the perpetual insecurity of the poor and marginalized “remain largely invisible to policy and decision-makers.”

International travel for individuals may well be discouraged for this COVID moment, but that’s not the case with food. Global food transportation remains the norm. One calorie in five has crossed at least one international border, the FAO’s chief economist notes in an outline of the battle plan for COVID-19.

The amalgam of food, labor, and city issues shows how contagious diseases test national and global societies differently from hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Contagious diseases change many rules of the social policy game.

As shocks to system stability go, contagious and communicable diseases require marathon-quality social cohesion and collaboration, as well as high levels of governmental policy coherence. The poor no longer suffer from their acute and chronic diseases in quiet desperation. They now live “in the same boat,” in which they can spread a communicable disease.

The poor may be ever with us, but the priority of the poor is a rare and momentous thing. To address a world health problem related to contagion, the World Health Organization must pay heed to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Mixing it up with government department boundaries is one pandemic feature that may become a catalyst for a range of deep-going governmental changes over the next decade.

Governmental silos and departmentalization of interlocking issues have endured relatively untouched — weird, given how often government departments go through re-organizations — since World War II.

But such stale separatism must give way to integration during pandemics.

Food and health, food and water, food and environment, food and energy, food and income, cannot be managed or treated in isolation.

The FAO, itself burdened by fierce border guards for each division, uses its urban food system document to heap praise on New York City, where efforts to feed the needy triumphed over firewalls that once separated the private sector, charitable, and public sector. The new food logistics promote cooperation across both agencies and supply chains.

Shortly after the FAO document was released, New York City invested $170 million in a wide range of initiatives, including 400 food hubs serving three hot meals a day in a variety of the city’s food insecurity hotspots.

Pandemics also catalyze change by building bridges over troubled ideological waters with the sheer pressure of reality.

Does the FAO favor localized or globalized food distribution?

Yes and yes! No need for an either-or binary here!

Long and globalized food value chains require too many hands touching too many goods too often, and are too vulnerable to multiple disruptions to be relied on, it’s argued in an FAO statement on small producers. (This is important to remember when dealing with the favoritism often displayed in public health regulations for supermarkets relative to farmers’ markets; markets, by definition, are likely to offer safer, less-handled, food.) But, the FAO also concedes that access to both the variety and assured quantity provided by global supply chains should not be disrupted by political divisions.

In the cold light of urgent daily needs, food leans to both local and global.

The FAO’s chief economist balances judgments on the specific and distinctive functions of local and global foods without too obviously pointing at ideologues on either side in his article. Interestingly, his article was one of the few not bundled together as FAO offerings on COVID.

“At the very least, we must make the Hippocratic Oath of doctors our own,” says FAO chief economist Maximo Torero Cullen. “Do no harm!”

An anonymous FAO official answers a Q and A by asserting that “building resilience is a duty for all if we are to reap the benefits of global interdependence.”

Though this FAO effort on city food security during a public health crisis fails to mention such obvious issues as urban agriculture and farmers’ markets, this first high-profile venture into city food policy by the FAO is a promising beginning full of possibilities for a post-COVID #BuildBackBetter future.

For my overview of how Toronto is responding to COVID-19, see here.

— Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts blogs regularly on He also produces a free newsletter for food activists and actionists. See past issues and sign up for new ones at

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