Richard Swerdlow: Pandemic Hunger

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

Many people are hungry and pandemic poverty has taken hunger to places and people it hasn’t gone before. Richard Swerdlow has this Perspective.

When shelter-in-place was declared, gyms closed. To stay fit, I started taking long walks around San Francisco. The walks are beautiful and I always discover something interesting.

But not everything I discover is beautiful. Recently on a walk, I passed a long line, stretching around a closed school building, block after block of people waiting. Those waiting didn't seem to fit any mold. They were old and young, Black, white, Latino, Asian. There were tattooed hipsters, moms with tired fussy children, pale exhausted elderly people on folding chairs. All of them waiting, masked and silent, on tape markers 6 feet apart.

When my walk took me past the beginning of the line, I saw what they were waiting for: a food bank distribution, crates of produce and packaged foods set up on the school yard.

With COVID-19 causing the worst unemployment since the depression, I've been hearing a grim new term in the news: Pandemic poverty. But it's one thing to hear it, and another to see it. As I continued on my walk, I found myself haunted by the faces of those in line, how no matter how different all seemed to wear the same expression of quiet humiliation, reminding me of faces I've seen in photos of bread lines in the 1930s.


A century later, bread lines are back. As the virus shatters the economy, food assistance programs have faced a 60 percent increase since March. By some estimates, 54 million Americans go hungry every day. In the Bay Area, nearly one in five can't afford to buy enough food. But on my walk that day, I realized statistics don't capture the bleakness of lines stretching for blocks to get a few apples and cans.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

If you still have a job, be grateful — 49 million Americans filed for unemployment between March and June. If you and your family are healthy, you’re fortunate — our country has seen 10 million cases of COVID and 240,000 deaths. And if you have so much food that you can overeat on Thanksgiving, your heart should be as filled with gratitude as your stomach is stuffed with turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. And as you sit around your table, remember those who waited in lines for hours to have something for their table.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.