Everyone’s been thinking about food lately. For thousands of migrant workers set adrift by the nationwide lockdown, food means violence, food means absence. Some have lived on salt and water, as if to simulate the taste of whole, cooked meals. Some faced blows as they tried to reach community kitchens or essential supply stores. Others queue for hours to return with a small bowl of rice and dal, not enough to feed a family of famished children. Already, in Jharkhand, an elderly woman is said to have died of hunger.
Meanwhile, social media is flooded with images of food. Perfectly baked cakes. Curries with tender chunks of meat and herbs. A quick stir fry with some wine or a cocktail on the side. Ingenious one-pot meals. As restaurants shut down, recreational eating must be done at home.
Thousands of young professionals, working from home and doing without domestic workers during the lockdown, now pay close attention to what they eat. They are learning a few things. When cooking dal in a pressure cooker, make sure the water stands an inch above the pulses. Watch out for the rice catching at the bottom. That fragrance you had smelt emerging from the kitchen since you were a child – it was whole spices dry-roasted on a flame.
In their comfortable lives so far, they have not had to know these things. Now, everyday food is bathed in an almost fetishistic glow. As they spend weeks locked away from friends and family, the future uncertain as the pandemic swallows lives and jobs, these are the small achievements that make daily life.
Besides, all these endeavours are laced with a sense of lack.
The unequal impact of the coronavirus lockdown is most evident when it comes to food. The richest stocked up on exotic ingredients and drinks – these were to provide consolation through weeks of solitude. Many among the middle classes hoarded essentials in panic – enough rice, dal, potatoes, onions to feed a small army. This meant there would be even less for those who could not afford to stock up.
But the scarcities may soon catch up with everyone as supply chains are disrupted by the lockdown. In the villages, farmers cannot find a decent price for perishable produce because of a sudden slump in demand. Some have destroyed crops in despair because there were no buyers. With prices crashing, they do not have money to hire transport to the vegetable mandis. Which means vegetable mandis are deserted as truck consignments taper off. Even with thinning supplies, vegetables have rotted in the mandis, since few vendors come to buy them. In locked down cities, local markets are shut and vendors pushing vegetable carts are attacked by the police.
Shelves are turning bare in grocery shops, fast running out of pre-lockdown stocks and unable to get fresh consignments of staples such as rice, flour, soup. E-retailers, who account for only 2% of India’s grocery market, are also running out. As imports drop, it could hit the supply of edible oil, although demand for it has also fallen significantly with restaurants closed. Imported delicacies – tinned meats, cheeses and chocolates – are fast disappearing from supermarket shelves.
Daily wage workers who kept the supply chain running – loading vegetables on trucks, packaging food, delivering them to shops or buyers – have fled factories and cities. Those who remain are without work and food. The lockdown and social distancing did not account for them. It worked for those with higher incomes and spacious homes, who only had to step out for occasional grocery runs or ordered food online. But the systems that starved workers are now starving without their valuable labour.
The decade of plenty
Shortages will not be restricted to India. At least three global agencies have warned of a world food crisis triggered by the pandemic, bringing back the spectre of starvation that was fading from collective memory.
Of course, the world never stopped being hungry. According to a survey by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, undernourishment levels, which had dropped significantly about a decade ago, started rising again from 2015. As of 2018, over 700 million, or close to 10% of the global population, experienced severe food insecurity, suggesting they often went hungry. Asia alone accounted for 354 million people. But even these numbers are an improvement from the early 1990s, when 18.6% of the world’s population knew extreme hunger. The famines that killed millions through the 19th and 20th centuries, caused by wars, empires and droughts, were receding into history.
In India, which became self-sufficient in foodgrain production decades ago, pockets of hunger and malnourishment have endured. Still, some studies suggest, famines have been eliminated despite continuing droughts.
Food habits changed with relative plenty. Those living at subsistence level started moving from grain to proteins and vegetables. For those more affluent and living in cities, food became diverse, exotic, sexy. The urban Indian palate opened up to cuisines around the world. New ingredients and cooking gadgets flooded the market, entered middle-class kitchens, putting impossible recipes within reach. Even though millions still lacked proper nutrition, about 40% of food produced in India was wasted.
But even among the middle classes, older generations remember scarcity. Grandmothers will tell you about people begging, not for rice but just for the starch left behind by rice, during the Bengal famine of 1943. They remember how to make cakes without an oven – cover it with sand or steam it. Old cookbooks, this article points out, store the memory of having to make do with little or making do with local ingredients.
With the lockdown and its ensuing shortages, these memories of frugality, of canny housekeeping, have returned to the middle classes. This is the moment of the humble dal, the versatility of rice, the possibility of cauliflower stalks. As food options narrow, so does the gap between the dietary habits of the poor and those more affluent.
Someday, this strange twilight of the world will have passed like a bad dream. The ailing will be well again, migrants will find their homes, the restaurants will fill up. The rich and the middle classes will return to work and forget these nightmarish months. But if they carry anything with them into the waking world, let it be this – a healthy respect for our daily bread, a recognition of every last person’s right to a square meal.