Essay’d Pandemic Edition #3 – Ben Hall on Food Insecurity

Our third “Pandemic Edition” features an interview with Ben Hall (the subject of Essay’d Installment #36) on food (in)security and the current moment.  Ben is uniquely qualified to talk on this subject. In addition to being a widely exhibited artist and improvising musician, he is also a long-time chef/restauranteur/food activist in the city. As a chef, Hall produced the first “fully integrated, serially repeated, chef-driven school meal in a major municipality producing a vegan, soy-free, gluten-free soup, at cost, for children at Detroit Public Schools where 55,000 students eat for free and 88% are financially eligible for school lunch.” He is also a faculty member at Bennington College in Vermont where he teaches on food security. And that ain’t the half of it ….. 
Detroit Cultural Crisis Survey
Ben Hall on Food Security
Sent by e-mail on April 15, 2020

Q1. I see that the research seminar you teach at Bennington College (in Vermont) is titled “A Complex Systems Approach to Food Insecurity” what does food insecurity mean, and why is it part of a complex system?

Food insecurity, roughly, is access or the inability to access food, and access, in this case, approximately means equity, or that’s how we approach it.

In the case of complexity theory, we’re looking at how all of the natural systems interface with supply chain mechanisms and their constituent parts (logistics, property, policy). And how for instance, a human is grown by food, they can’t exist without it, at a certain point, in the US they become a decision making consumer, one still composed of the food they eat. After that, at some point, they become, broadly speaking, part of the labor pool. Ideally, they become a voter. The people that they vote for at the municipal, state, and federal levels institute policy, which affects food production in the Farm Bill, for instance, which we look at closely and come back to again and again.

But the Farm Bill, which is an incredible bit of policy enacted every five years, and which was bipartisan before Obama, is only a small part of food policy because of water, air, and the myriad amount of policy that affects anything that produces heat, combustion, shipping. All of those things affect climate change, which then affects weather, water availability, growing seasons, and refrigeration; which then produces more climate change; all of which affect food production as we understand it. This is not to mention immigration policy that specifically affects H2A temp ag-worker visas. Every single piece of this structure is affected by policy, whether it is legislated, or in some cases, unlegislated, which can have the same profoundly negative outcomes.

In the most simple case, you can see that federal legislation, as a rule, is pro-fracking, pro-coal, pro-petroleum. These are incredibly powerful lobbies. All of that legislation and non-legislation affects the air. We breathe that air, that oxygen enters our bloodstream and changes the way our body moves, and our brain works. So in a way, we look at how very individual biology has to interface with our democratic capitalist enterprise, and what that means for people who have a lesser voice in that same system, and how we might conceive of both fluidity of understanding relational to this policy (so that it can be broken down to its constituent parts – which is how we think about the sort of ontology of policy, capital, supply chain mechanics, and human physiology) so that ultimately there’s not the sort of auto-deferral of policy that literally affects every breath and every meal, and as a consequence how we can grow ourselves into the strongest beings possible which is a thing that’s genetically built into our self, that ability to grow. But every time policy, usually pushed by some need for return to exceed growth, interrupts that biological imperative, which it does constantly we move further and further away from being humans having a natural interaction with our world. There is obviously a strong spine of Paolo Freire in this methodology and a rejection of the deposit model of education. This isn’t entirely consistent with the institution, but as a non-academic, I still have to understand my own approach to education as harmonized with my other political, policy, and ethical behaviors.” 

Q2. Obviously, there are a lot of things in flux right now, all the way from shortages of agricultural laborers due to travel restrictions through to increased poverty levels due to the economic collapse, and massive changes in retail patterns. That’s to say nothing about a clearly dysfunctional federal government. Where do you think that the most significant stress points are located in the food system?

How do you think this will play out in Detroit?

Are the most significant concerns on the supply side, or in people’s ability to pay?

Well, the biggest stress point is going to be in labor, waste, and inventory, generally speaking. Obviously, people need to get to their job to do their job, and all food jobs have been deemed essential. In the case of the coming farm season in colder zones, Michigan, for instance, will there be enough healthy workers able enough to get to the fields and orchards to harvest? Will the normally cramped quarters H2A farmworkers typically live in create different surges? Will those workers have medical care available to them and their community?

Now Michigan is just one state that depends on agricultural production for a huge portion of the state’s taxable revenue with around $2 billion in international exports out of the approx $100 billion in revenue from ag in Michigan. So just imagine a 20% cut to either of those numbers. And be aware that standard economic projections assume that if we see a 20% drop in the parent industry, we will see a 30-40% drop in revenue in all of the other backward linked industries, i.e., shipping, HVAC, nurseries, grocery, farm equipment, etc. But like Tunde Wey’s “Let It Die” essay, it’s also true that there’s enormous waste and exploitation in farms so hopefully, the structure that comes out of this actually reduces the 40% food waste we see in this country and accordingly reduces the amount of labor exploitation. This is perhaps overly hopeful, but these precarious systems like the restaurant industry have been operating so wobbly for so long anyway that the longer this goes on, the easier it is to imagine a rethink of the structures that produce these systems of exploitation. 

A lot of this goes back to simple supply and demand. The most recent retail figures were just released, and while, of course, in-store retail was down, so were online sales, but at the same time, when the Hermes flagship store reopened in Guangzhou yesterday, it did $2.7M in a single day of sales. The New York Times then reported that farmers were throwing away milk and eggs and burying crops but didn’t report on the fact that this isn’t’ uncommon practice or give comparative analysis to what the normal waste would be on a day like this without a pandemic. Inventories contract during recessions so that there’s more cash on hand, but I think what we’ll see is that business will have to think in entirely new ways about supply and demand. It’s easy to turn the faucet off, but when you turn it back on it never bounces right back to the same level. 

Locally, cash has to circulate. With low-income workers, cash more typically circulates in a tighter geographical radius, so we actually might be better off than some other larger markets, but again that may just be wishful thinking. I think we are incredibly lucky to at least have a deep grow-your-own infrastructure thanks to Keep Growing Detroit.

 Q3. In your 2013 Solo Exhibition (“Let’s Don’t Take No Chance”) you created large, very precarious sculptures that often featured highly processed foodstuffs. I’m sure you don’t take any pleasure in this, but they seem remarkably prescient at the current time. How has the current crisis impacted your practice? 

As far as “Let’s Don’t Take No Chance,” I’ve had a wobbly life, so the precarity I see in image and objects, in structural behavior of economic patterns, those are just my sports, my box scores. I don’t get off on it, but it gives me a clearer understanding of the world, how it works, how it bends, how it breaks.

My current practice has kind of exploded, given that I don’t get 300 emails a day. At least three times in the last month I’ve had entire days where I didn’t get an email that required an immediate response, and I’m not someone who lives or dies by email, but suddenly I realized I had whole days where I wasn’t expected to respond to something. As things slow, as plans don’t have to be made, strategies not deployed, I’m incredibly thankful for the reflective time it’s given me, while at the same time honoring the fact that people are in absolute crisis right now and that there’s no real end in sight. It was also released today that there may be some form of lockdown into 2022 in some parts of the world. So that means no touring, no seeing friends from other parts of the world, less money circulating for projects. But it definitely does allow for a deep and long self-assessment for the type of work we want to do, work we want to make, and the effect that that has in a world like this one.


Image Credit: She Shells, 2013, CDX, 3X Fat Goose resewn with albatross feathers, Mountain Dew, scrapped bulletproof glass, mirror, cart, aluminum sheeting, prayer bowl, Master lock and Froot Loops, 60′ x 60″ x 144″ 2013 Image courtesy of the artist.