Risking Lives, Averting Hunger, Building Community: The Gendered Dimensions of the Food System in the Pandemic, by Paige Castellanos, Carolyn E. Sachs, and Ann R. Tickamyer

Covid-19 upended our world. Almost every aspect of our lives was changed. The food system was plunged into chaos, offering uncertainty for many, acute danger for some.

Covid-19 upended our world. Almost every aspect of our lives was changed. The food system was plunged into chaos, offering uncertainty for many, acute danger for some.

Food shortages; disruptions in agricultural and food production, processing, and distribution; and illness among workers struggling to provide essential services under extreme conditions – such were the first signs that the pandemic presented a daunting challenge to women. In the Spring of 2022, amid signs of hope as well as new surges, spikes and variants, some lessons of Covid-19’s first two years can be drawn. And many of them are about gender.

We have learned that overlapping racial, gender, ethnic, sexuality and class inequalities in the food system during the pandemic affect food insecurity, labour conditions, exposure to Covid-19 and associated health risks, vulnerabilities, coping mechanisms, and strategies for resilience. 

As scholars in the field of gender and agriculture, in 2020 we collaborated, alongside others, in bringing out a transnational collection, the Routledge Handbook of Gender and Agriculture, one in a series of books focused on environment and sustainability.[1] Since our book’s launching coincided with the pandemic’s global take-off, we added an epilogue focused on this new development. It soon became apparent, in many exchanges with our authors, that the pandemic was having a significant effect on gender and agriculture around the world. So, we began the blog  “Gender, Food, Agriculture, and the Coronavirus” to apply a gender lens to the challenges confronting  the global food system. Rural women and marginalized groups occupied centre-stage.

Now, our Gender, Food, and Coronavirus: Stories of Harm and Hope (2022) has emerged from these posts.[2] As the pandemic’s end comes to seem to be more of a far-off illusion than an achieved reality, it becomes obvious that gendered disparities, and the personal and social crises they signal, have become enduring parts of the world food system. Such narratives of harm and hope call out for documentation, analysis – and activism.

Food supply systems are endangered. The livelihoods, health, and safety of people who make them possible have been damaged. Gender pervades every aspect of this crisis. Women fill decisive roles in providing much of the formal and informal work in agriculture, food production, distribution, and preparation. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, people have had to keep eating to survive, and women make up the majority of essential workers in the food system—a fact too often minimized, undervalued, even unacknowledged. Their ability to perform this work remains framed by inequitable policies and institutions.

Whether managing to take care of a newborn baby at home while continuing to work, teaching young children as they learn remotely, or supporting elderly parents while remaining separated from them through protective windows, many women experienced dramatically increased workloads in 2020-1. They were burdened with unequal care work responsibilities both at home and in their communities.

Women experience higher levels of care work at home, whether it is food preparation or childcare, fetching water or wood fuel. But in a pandemic, such longstanding imbalances were accentuated.  Women across many different countries and contexts were saddled with the increased responsibility to care for multi-generational households, family members who might have returned from migration, and children whose schools were closed. Women also provide much of the formal and informal care work in hospitals, nursing homes, and in their households. Such critically important work often entailed enhanced risks of infection and death.  

The pandemic was not an easy time for the vast majority. Many of us enjoy comfortable and safe shelter, expansive outdoor spaces in which to exercise, friends and colleagues to support us. Even so, we struggled with isolation and worry. Others, though, were far less fortunate.  Homelessness, unemployment, and hunger became widespread.

At times of disaster – earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, floods, and pandemics – women, the poor, and minorities often suffer disproportionate costs. Poor and marginalized populations endured some of the most severe and far-reaching lockdowns the world has ever known. Pandemic hardships typically exacerbated existing economic inequalities and created new ones. The poor and marginalized increasingly suffered malnutrition and acute food insecurity. These had a particularly harsh impact on women.

Yet, women were not mere victims. Individual women and women’s groups and community organizations demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness and resilience. Some even launched just and sustainable initiatives. They sought to transform the crisis into an opportunity for systemic change, from the local to the global level.

Gender, Food, and Coronavirus, drawing on evidence from Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, Europe, and North, Central, and South America, shows how Covid-19 affected gender, agriculture, and food systems across the globe.   It offers on-the-ground accounts from scholars, practitioners, and community members.

Standing back from the collection, what general lessons can we draw from it? Four areas in particular – food insecurity, essential labour and care work, resilience and resistance, and the post-pandemic situation research and policy – call out for comment.

The pandemic constituted a food emergency for countless already vulnerable families. As people lost their jobs and sources of income, they often lacked resources to purchase or produce adequately nutritious food. With lockdowns, small farmers, many of whom are women, often struggle to transport or market their agricultural produce. In Nepal[3] and Cambodia,[4] for example, women farmers found it hard to sell their produce during lockdowns. Similarly, Indigenous farming women in Honduras struggled to get their crops to market during pandemic lockdowns.[5] In Vietnam, the collapse of tourism hurt women agribusiness entrepreneurs.[6] 

Sometimes women farmers had to sell their produce during lockdowns at bargain-basement prices. And often they found that state policies designed to help small producers systematically overlooked their needs. In many of these cases, governments responded by providing direct food or economic aid, but lockdowns hampered market activities in the food sector. Women and men experienced these hardships differently, whether through increased carework burden, the challenges to access aid benefits, or the difficulty in maintaining food security.

During the pandemic, many people lost their jobs.   Others moved to working from home. Little to be envied were those deemed “essential workers,” who were required to keep on the job,  often under dangerous and risky conditions. Because the need for food does not cease during the pandemic, many men and women workers in the food sector fell into this category.

In one of our book’s chapters, Emily Southard documents how migrant farm and food processing workers in Iowa continued working during the pandemic and fell ill or died under horrible conditions. She reveals how they are essential for providing food for us all, but are treated as disposable. “The intersection of migrant workers’ racialized, illegalized, and gendered identities in the United States and globally has been structured… to permit workers as little power as possible, leaving them in a highly precarious position, materially and mentally, eve in the best of circumstances,” she argues. “COVID-19 has just provided an unfortunate opportunity for the barbaric effects of the globalized division of labor in agriculture to be particularly revealed and for the way that gender interacts in these circumstances to be specifically analyzed.”[7]

Grocery store workers were also considered essential during the pandemic because grocery stores could not be permanently shut down for its duration. In the U.S., about half of grocery store workers are women, but they comprise 75% of cashiers, the workers most exposed to the public and coronavirus.[8] Many grocery workers were afflicted with Covid-19 and grocery chains made some efforts to protect their workers such as plastic shields, restricting the number of customers in stores, and social distancing measures. Restaurant workers in the U.S, many of whom are women of colour, have been hard hit by structural racism and the impact of ill health.[9] Many of these workers lost their jobs. Others risked their lives as they go to work to earn income and provide food for others.

“At the old Fannie Mae, Washington D.C.” By Levon Avdoyan (CC BY 2.0).

Women often provide the bulk of food care work for their families, households and communities. As Nancy Fraser argued in the first issue of Syndemic,[10] women’s largely unpaid work has been taken for granted and undervalued. During the pandemic, the importance of women’s food care work in households became much more visible. The need for this food care work increased as people spent more time working at home and children were out of school in many places. 

Women’s legendary double shift became even more onerous during the pandemic. In Scotland, for example, farm women confronted additional burdens of domestic labour and the inequalities these burdens have generated and exacerbated. “I was the responsible functioning adult that had to cook and do the shopping and lamb ewes and calve cows,” one woman remarked to scholars Hannah Budge and Sally Shortall. “And they’re looking at me waiting to be fed.” Another, holding a senior position off the farm, was chagrined to discover the people at her home “just expected me to just pick up and do everything. It felt like they reverted back to mum, mum will be in charge, mum will fix it.”[11]  

For such women, mental labour must figure into an account of the added intrahousehold responsibilities borne by women. Similarly, women pastoralists in Kenya also found themselves expected to provide emotional support and practical leadership at a time when demands on their labour had intensified.[12] The care work expected of women has pervaded every aspect of life during the pandemic.

Faced with unbearable circumstances, many women and women’s organizations developed strategies to provide food and protect people in their communities and workplaces during the pandemic. In Honduras, a women’s Indigenous organization that works with rural women farmers quickly adapted their efforts in the pandemic to provide sanitation, masks, and food to women members.[13] In Minnesota a local organization comprised of Ojibiwe and white settlers  provided food assistance during the pandemic and also initiated discussions about racism in the food system and in their communities.[14]

Queer people throughout the food system – as workers in restaurants or meatpacking plants, as consumers, and as farmers – were strongly affected by Covid-19. In one chapter, Michaela Hoffelmeyer documents the “increased mental health stressors” experienced by queer farmers, “related to the loss of in-person social networking and support.” Pre-pandemic, queer adults were more likely to lack money to feed themselves and their families. During the pandemic, some were able to mobilize together to “meet the needs of queer and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) customers and farmers,” with one “revolutionary, highly visible queer-owned farm in rural New York” providing as many as 52,000 meals and 35,000 pounds of produce for low-income customers.[15]

In the central highlands of Vietnam, women entrepreneurs in agribusiness managed not only to survive but thrive during hard times, argue Nozomi Kawarazuka and Pham Thi Hoa. At the beginning of the pandemic, the government closed borders, thus narrowing the options for people reliant on selling vegetables and flowers for export. Women owning agribusinesses adapted by finding retailers and consumers online. Some shifted from flowers to vegetables. Many such entrepreneurs were able to “utilize informal social networks to receive technical and psychological support, which is a foundation for building social trust and making economic gains for resiliency to crises such as the pandemic.”[16]

“Mobile phones are no stranger to the rice fields of Dong Tien village in South Vietnam.” By Lothar Wedekind (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Insecurity, precarity, scarcity: the pandemic demonstrated their pervasiveness for women in the food system. It also disrupted scholarly attempts to document and analyze such challenges. Researchers confronted bans on travel, obstacles to collecting data, and ethical and personal dilemmas as they attempted to navigate these difficult waters. COVID’s dramatic effects on research programs around the globe reinforce the urgency of using feminist methodology (and, especially, participatory approaches) to maintain access, respect boundaries, and advance understanding within ethical standards when options are limited.[17] 

Taken together, the chapters of Gender, Food and Coronavirus offer a blueprint for meaningful change. Better understanding of the weakness in food supply and systems uncovered through pandemic research can and should influence policy. More just and sustainable systems of food and agriculture production, distribution, and consumption are achievable.

We need expanded work on the forms, precarity, and disparities of women’s labour under a variety of circumstances, including emergency and disaster conditions. We need more research on the ubiquity of women’s care work and its many manifestations in the home, the community, and the labour market.

Much of this work remains hidden or taken for granted – such as the often time-consuming and stressful mental labour women undertake in carework. Feeding a household requires much planning in food acquisition, preparation, and distribution, made more difficult when access to food sources is limited or eliminated and household sizes have grown as with returning members seeking refuge after losing jobs or housing.

Beyond the need for stronger, more equitable, and gender-sensitive social welfare and health care policies and programs, we need specific policies, protections, and support for food and agriculture workers and sectors. These workers are often the most poorly paid, with the fewest resources to fall back on in difficult times. In many places, women work as unpaid family labourers with little access to their own resources and few rights to land or wages. Many are undocumented, informal, or otherwise unrecognized workers.

Organizing for better working conditions has seen an upsurge during Covid-19. In general, the necessity of policies to recognize, regularize, and improve working conditions and compensation for all food and agricultural workers, but especially women and other marginalized workers, has been underscored by the pandemic. Whether they’ll be implemented remains unclear.

It also made obvious the need for strong local food systems. As supply chains broke down and shortages emerged (and remain) in many places, both producers and consumers paid a punishing price.  Farmers lost markets and access to customers. Consumers experienced lack of goods, often in the same locale. In between, the ravages of the disease on processing workers further exacerbated disruptions on supply. Support for more robust local systems, while not a panacea, would make the connections between producers, processors, and consumers less vulnerable to global crises.

Translating policy into gender-transformative programs will not be easy. However, the pandemic also demonstrates what collective action, both formal and informal and at different scales, can accomplish. Accounts of community-based networks and organizations to provide goods, services, and care provide hope. They offer both inspirational and aspirational models of resilience.

The pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing inequalities. It has revealed discriminatory practices embedded within health care, employment, and justice institutions, all with direct consequences for humanity’s food system. While the impact of the pandemic has been and continues to be devastating, it presents an opportunity to address these inequities and make real change – collectively.

The question remains: will we come together and make progress related to gender and agriculture, or will we return to the status quo? Can we imagine, in a world capable of producing vaccines in record time, that we might also look forward to one with gender equality for those who keep humanity fed and food justice for all?

[1] Carolyn E. Sachs, Leif Jensen, Paige Castellanos, Kathleen Sexsmith, eds., Routledge Handbook of Gender and Agriculture (London and New York: Routledge, 2020). 

[2] Paige Castellanos, Carolyn E. Sachs, and Ann R. Tickamyer, eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19: Global Stories of Harm and Hope (London and New York: Routledge, 2022).

[3] Stephanie Leder, Gitta Shrestha, Rachana Upadhyaya, and Yuvika Adhikari,  “COVID-19, gender, and small-scale farming in Nepal,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 3-11.

[4] Sovanneary Huot and Leif Jensen, “Gender implications of COVID-19 in Cambodia,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 13-21.

[5] Alfredo Reyes, Hazel Velasco, Mercedes García and Olga Pérez, “Facing COVID-19 in rural Honduras: experiences of an indigenous women’s association,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 63-72.

[6] Nozomi Kawaarazuka and Pham Thi Hoa, “Social aspects of women’s agribusiness in times of COVD-19 in the Central Highlands ofVietnam,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 33-42.

[7] Emily Southard, “COVID-19, migrant workers, and meatpacking in US agriculture: a critical feminist reflection,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 87.

[8] Lynda Laughlan and Megan Wisniewski, U.S. Census Bureau, “Women represent majority of workers in several essential occupations,” Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, 28 March 2021, Link to source.

[9] Whitney Shervey, “Food corporation allegiance or worker solidarity? Summoning restaurant worker solidaritiy in the age of Covid-19,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 100-108.

[10] Nancy Fraser, “An Interview with Nancy Fraser,” Syndemic Magazine, 1 (February 2022), Link to source.

[11] Cited, Hannah Budge and Sally Shortall, “COVID-19, gender, agriculture, and future research,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 46.

[12] Kayla Yurco, “Renegotiating care from the local to global,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 53-60.

[13] Alfredo Reyes, Hazel Velasco, Mercedes García and Olga Pérez, “Facing COVID-19 in rural Honduras: experiences of an indigenous women’s association,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 63-72.

[14] Angie Carter, “Cultivating community resilience: working in solidarity in and beyond crisis,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 73-80.

[15] Michaela Hoffelmeyer, “Queerness in the US agrifood system during COVID-19,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 93, 94, 96.

[16] Nozomi Kawarazuka and Pham Thi Hoa, “Social aspects of women’s agribusiness in times of Covid-19 in the Central Highlands of Vietnam,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 38.

[17] Ann R. Tickamyer, “COVID-19 and feminist methods: one year later,” in Castellanos et al., eds., Gender, Food and COVID-19, 111-118.