Chefs, COVID-19 & Food Systems

Chefs and restaurants have been critical in taking a leading role during the global impact of COVID-19. Read on for an analysis of ways they are leading and scroll to hear straight from chefs what they are focused on.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food services and systems worldwide have been unprecedented.  No aspect of food systems has been left unaffected, be it in a surge of demand for a specific service or product, new and unexpected challenges in business models and operations or heightened awareness of inequities within food production and services.

Here at EAT we are deeply committed to supporting the momentum for just transition and positive change through this crisis. We are engaged in rich conversation and collaboration across various aspects of food systems have been impacted by this pandemic and worldwide shift.

Chefs and restaurants have been critical in taking a leading role during the global impact of COVID -19. This article is devoted to looking at some of the ways the pandemic has affected  chefs and restaurants across the world including:

  • Community Service
  • Policy & Systems Change
  • Cultivating Knowledge
  • Chefs Going Virtual

Political action & Feeding Communities in Need

COVID-19  has radically heightened awareness of vulnerabilities within food systems at every layer, from pay inequity and poor treatment of migrant workers to a range of issues related to food access and affordability.  Chefs have been at the helm, during the pandemic, of steering focus, action and awareness to change that needs to occur for a more equitable system.

In the New York Times Opinion piece, We Have a Food Crisis Unfolding Out of Sight, José Andrés of World Central Kitchen sounds an urgent call to mobilize restaurants workers towards the front lines of feeding Americans through the current pandemic. Andrés also urges leaders to provide federal aid as “food can be the solution-supporting millions of jobs while also feeding millions of people in desperate need.” 

 

…food can be the solution-supporting millions of jobs while also feeding millions of people in desperate need.

Chef and EAT Advisory Board alumnus Marcus Samuelsson penned a critical reflection in his CNN Opinion Piece, We need seismic change, right now, highlighting the need for concern specifically for food-insecure populations at this time. In partnership with José Andrés and others, he is transforming his restaurants into community kitchens, to address these growing concerns and mitigate negative impacts.

His own efforts to mobilize and deploy help can be seen in the work of World Central Kitchen, which has relief teams who have been working in many regions to deliver meals to those in need during these difficult times.

Like Andrés and so many other chefs and restaurateurs across the globe right now, he also highlights the need for federal and local guidelines for funding. Unemployment for food service workers all over the world is another issue of pressing concern during this chapter and Samuelsson, a business owner with restaurants in multiple countries, is keenly aware of the difference in benefits by country and highlights the grave lack of unemployment benefits for food service workers in the USA.

Governments have a critical role to play in helping citizens and communities not only weather this crisis, develop resiliency and build towards a more sustainable future.

Turning crisis into policy, advocacy and connection

Paul Newnham leads the Chefs’ Manifesto initiative as Director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub. In discussion with EAT, he brilliantly outlined the spectrum of experiences of chefs and restaurants during this pandemic. He notes that we “…are faced with an enormous challenge. In a significant portion of the world, restaurants rely on weekly incomes, employees are on short-term or zero-hour contracts and food suppliers have an abundance of produce with no destination.” He highlights the critical fact that mass closure of restaurants has also led to unemployment for countless food service workers across the planet.   

He also notes the broad spectrum of innovative responses being deployed throughout the world. 

Recognizing the hardships of people across the world working in the food industry while also seeing the potential for an adaptive and creative response to the crisis, was echoed in many discussions we had. 

Photo of Chef Michael Elégbèdé by OmVed Gardens/Diana Patient @diazapan 

“Chefs and restaurant staff are now at home thinking creatively about what they can do to provide for their families and about what the future holds”, Newnham notes. Among the range of responses, he observed among were: 

  • Advocacy work in support of financial aid packages from their national governments to help see the hospitality industry through this challenge 
  • Restaurants adapting quickly to move towards takeaway and delivery and thinking about how they can support the health system 
  • Provision of meals for homeless, essential workers and people who have lost their jobs 
Photo of Chef Anahita Dhondy by  OmVed Gardens/Diana Patient @diazapan

Shifting Business Models & Food on the Frontlines

Across the world, stories are emerging of restaurants and other food services transforming their models to serve the most intensive needs in this crisis.  While scores of restaurants have had to close their operations during this crisis, many have been able to shift their focus to delivery of food to hospital staffs. With healthcare workers being the soldiers of this critical fight, their teams are experiencing the brunt of the effect of this pandemic with prolonged exposure to the virus in treating patients, long hours and strained resources and staffs.

Restaurants and organizations across the world have mobilized their resources and efforts to feed health care workers.


Restaurants and organizations across the world have mobilized their resources and efforts to feed health care workers. Continuous media coverage has documented efforts in  
San Francisco to France and Spain to truly every region affected by the pandemic.
Baltimore-based Danielle Nierenberg is the president and co-founder of Food Tank. Founded in 2013 by Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack, Food Tank is a global community and platform pushing for food system change and has also been on the front lines of coverage of COVID-19’s effect on all aspects of food systems.   

We had a chance to connect with Nierenberg about their ongoing coverage of the pandemic’s affects and when they realized how much this issue would dominate the news stream. She notes that, “We had to figure out a way to pivot and started having these really blunt conversations about how COVID-19 is impacting farmers, food workers, how it’s impacting hourly workers – all of the invisible hands that touch the food system and why they are more important than ever before. They are on the front lines of all of this.

…there are a lot of unsung heroes that are making a lot of change.”  


We wanted to be able to tell their stories and get some positivity out of this because there are a lot of unsung heroes that are making a lot of change.” 
 

Windows of Opportunity and Cultivating Knowledge

Passionate foodie and chef, William Baroumas Van Hal is also an Engagement Officer at EAT. William works from a strategic culinary perspective on practical actions we can take in our own meal preparation with the EAT-Lancet Report in mind. He reflects that on his own excursions to the grocery store, he observes how interesting it is to see what is being cleared off the shelves (and what is not).  Canned food, pasta and candy, he notes, are often cleared while items such as dry legumes, nuts and rice are often still shelved in abundance.  This is not only an indication of what people eat and choose to stock up on when feeling a threat of food insecurity, but also an indicator of a lack of basic knowledge of nutrition and ingredients, particularly those with a long shelf life and high nutritional value.   

William also stresses this as a blow to an industry that already was battling low margins and high costs, emphasizing the opportunity this offers consumers to truly recognize and appreciate the hard work of countless individuals who prepare and serve us food on a regular basis. He  reflects that

I also hope this inspires people, especially in cities to become more proficient cooking at home…


“I also hope this inspires people, especially in cities to become more proficient cooking at home increasing their knowledge about what ingredients are healthy, sustainable and last just as long, or longer than dried beef or pasta.”
 

Reflecting on geographical and cultural food habits of urban dwellers, Baroumas Van Hal, noted that “…the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a lot more people living in the global north, having been able to count on the extreme luxury of a restaurant serving them, breakfast, lunch and or dinner to stay at home and cook for themselves. Historically lot of them did it by choice but also by design as many big city citizens have limited kitchens or lack time to cook at home. A qualified guess is that health care personnel have neither the time nor energy to do that at the moment. Food service is important.” 

“We are presented with an opportunity to further cultivate solidarity and share knowledge within the food industry.


Newnham highlights that
 “We are presented with an opportunity to further cultivate solidarity and share knowledge within the food industry. Through an initiative like #TogetherAtHome, chefs are connecting with their audiences to help them learn about healthy, nutritious, diverse ingredients, new cooking techniques and to share simple recipes for cooking with affordable and accessible food.” 

Going Live At Home with @chefsmanifesto and #togetherathome

During COVID-19, the SDG2 Advocacy Hub works with chefs around the world to encourage people to stay home and practice social distancing while also focusing on the power of food to connect us and keep us healthy. In an effort to support chefs during the crisis, they joined forces with #TogetherAtHome, a virtual series initiated by Global Citizen helping to raise awareness and action to support the great work of the World Health Organization and the fight against COVID-19. Through Instagram Live sessions, the chefs share delicious, nutritious, kid-friendly, cupboard recipes and encourage their followers to cook along with them. 

Chefs Going Virtual

We heard from several chefs around the world, who work with the SDG2 Advocacy Hub through the Chefs’ Manifesto, about how they are experiencing this pandemic and about impacts on and opportunities for their services and cooking. 

  • Chef Michael Elégbèdé of Nigeria  (IG @elegbede.m) shared that his team is taking this time as an opportunity to share and educate their guests on healthy eating and measures to flatten the curve. “Nigerian food is quite plant-forward and many of our dishes use legumes. The current situation is giving us the opportunity to share our food with a broader global audience in the diverse ways they can use ingredients with longer life spans like dried legumes.” 
  • UK based Chef Chantelle Nicholson (IG @chef_chantelle)  launched a meal and grocery delivery service to keep her team engaged and provide work for them but based on recent safety guidelines (as of late March) stopped the service to halt travel and exposure for her team.  However, she notes that “it was such a well-received service and there’s a huge part of me that would like to maintain it for our customers, given supermarket deliveries are now very hard to get.” 
  • Chef Yi Wen of China (IG @plant_citizen) notes that as a Plant Forward Whole Foods Chef Educator, she has high hopes for plant-based education as a space to “be acknowledged, respected and sought after in the next 5 years as people learn more and more about the importance of taking charge of their health and planetary wellbeing during this pandemic. There are more and more platforms engaging in natural education, ecological farming, veganism, sustainability, etc. or commercial spaces taking strides in initiating health and wellness values.” 
  • Chef Ali Mandhry of Kenya (IG @chefalimandhry) notes that locals tend to stock up on vegetables and that panic buying has occurred due to a rise in demand. He shares that “most of our vegetables come from the neighborhood countries like Tanzania and Uganda and sadly all the borders have already been closed down.”  Mahndry does however observe the current opportunity to “teach people how to cook healthy and on a budget at home using the online platforms, because we don’t know how long this pandemic will last.” 
  • Chef Lorna Maseko of South Africa (IG @lornamaseko) reflected that the current situation is “pushing me to be more creative particularly with foods I may have just pushed to the side or didn’t enjoy cooking or eating. This is truly a great time to introspect about our impact on the planet, how we consume food, our lives, goals and so much more.” 
  • Chef Radhika Khandelwal of India (IG @pandoodle) observed that people are newly interested in practicing zero waste methods in order to preserve what food they do have as well as an increased interest in legumes, grains (other than wheat and rice), root vegetables and preservation methods.

People are taking time out to prepare and eat their meals mindfully and this can be highly beneficial for the collective health and for the planet


People are taking time out to prepare and eat their meals mindfully and this can be highly beneficial for the collective health and for the planet” Khandelwal reflects. She shares that she has been posting recipes on her Instagram stories on a near daily basis “to help my farmer friends move their produce faster, and to show people how to eat more mindfully. 

  • Chef Alejandra Schrader of USA & Venezuela (IG @chefaleschrader) has, like many fellow chefs globally, seen the window of opportunity during this chapter “to create content and invite people to come into my kitchen. I’ve found a sense of purpose amidst all the chaos and I’m determined to empower people to cook at home.” She observes that in preparing for an uncertain future “…shoppers stock up on canned food and dry legumes and grains—food not generally favored by the average American household. Even if it’s not out of interest (but because shelves are generally empty in the meat department of major grocery stores), more people will need to rely on plant-based ingredients to prepare their daily meals. As a chef certified in plant-based nutrition, I feel very privileged to be of service to others and educate them on the best and most flavorful ways to use humble ingredients to prepare great meals!” 

Schrader has recently started a series of virtual cooking sessions: “Nutrition in the Times of COVID19” (a play on words alluding to “Love in the Time of Cholera”.) This effort falls in line with Global Citizen’s “Together at Home” Campaign. Through live sessions, she features a plant-based dish that is easy to make and packed with nourishing, immune-system boosting plant-based ingredients. “I’m grateful that other chefs from around the world have also stepped up to carry the message of healthy eating” Schrader notes. 

Food as a Connective Force

This pandemic has deepened our awareness of vulnerabilities and cracks in the food system.  It has steered our attention directly to the most unsustainable aspects of how we produce and provide food globally.  

It has also given us pause and opportunity to understand all of the levels and work involved in feeding populations.


It has also given us pause and opportunity to understand all of the levels and work involved in feeding populations. On the local level, we are all witnessing the pandemic’s effect on food services in our communities
 

 

Food Tank’s Nierenberg noted that “One thing I am really inspired by right now is that I think this crisis made people realize how much goes into the food system.


There are all these invisible hands that we never think about. It’s not just the farmers, it’s not just distributors and truck drivers, it’s not just the processing and slaughterhouse workers.  All of these folks who get food on our tables, we’ve just missed them and they’re really the most important people in the world and they get no respect.  They’re not paid well, they are on the front lines of this.  If they’re sick, we get sick.  I hope what comes out of this is we build more respect for all the people involved in the food and agriculture system and that we realize how important they are. This time gives us a lot of opportunity to figure out how to put more emphasis on a sustainable food and agricultural system that is resilient.
”   

SDG2 Advocacy Hub’s Newnham reflected that “Good food is about love. Love of health, of celebration, children, friends and family. Love of people and planet. Food brings us together, particularly now that we are at home, experimenting in the kitchen and looking at how different ingredients can come together to build healthy, nutritious meals. Therefore, one element of the current challenge is us connecting and reflecting about some of the basics of food and the role it plays in our lives. 

Food is sustenance and nutrition.  It is a connective social and economic force. The repercussions of COVID-19 have deeply illuminated how indebted we are as individuals and communities to people across the spectrum of food production and services. With this knowledge, we can move forward as societies and give food service workers the acknowledgement and respect they truly deserve. 

We welcome readers to join us across our social media channels and share your stories, observations and experiences. 

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