Hunger games

Walking around town this weekend, finding restaurant upon restaurant closed and dark – including, of all things, McDonald’s when I stopped by on Sunday – I found myself a little bit unnerved by the scale of the economic disaster unfolding before us, as well as angry at the callousness and stupidity of the people who shoved this avoidable calamity down our throats.

Running short on frozen meats at home, and unable to find sustenance at any of the restaurants I normally visit, I decided to walk to Target, which is the closest thing to a grocery store in my neighborhood. But my trip to the retailer brought another unpleasant surprise, because the friendly red doors facing the street were locked. What was happening? It turned out that the store was still open, but customers had to enter via a different door within the parking garage – and there was a line. As I rounded the corner, I saw a small group of people standing apart from each other at socially responsible intervals, while at the door stood a Target employee with a surgical mask hanging around his neck, raising a gloved hand while he told the crowd that another group of 10 would be allowed in shortly.

I didn’t want any part of that, so I made a beeline to an Italian restaurant that I have ordered takeout from several times during this era of madness. I brought home a chicken parm sandwich, and it was good. But the whole episode got me thinking about hunger. My eating options have been significantly curtailed by the “lockdown,” to the point of serious inconvenience. I am able to cope, as are most people, but that is obviously not going to be the case for a certain percentage of my city’s population of 130,000 people. I repeat: McDonald’s was closed.

Extrapolate over the nation’s population of 330 million, add several weeks (or months), and things could get ugly much faster than most people realize. We’re already seeing massive breadlines across the country as jobless claims pile up (22 million and counting), with vehicular lines exceeding a mile in length at food banks in Pittsburgh and Dallas. There is also the issue of the food supply chain, which is being thrown into chaos by the mass closures of restaurants, hotels and schools. The Times had a piece earlier this month about how farmers are destroying tens of millions of pounds of fresh food as their usual buyers have shut down.

How these factors will interact – widespread impoverishment, supply chain disruption and the narrowing of available sources of food – is beyond me, but I think the damage will be far more severe than is generally understood, because of the complex, nonlinear nature of the systems being messed with. Even if lockdown restrictions were lifted tomorrow, it is possible that the damage already done to the economy could lead to cascading industrial and logistical failures that will continue and even accelerate after things return to “normal.” Our economy is not designed to stop in its tracks for a week, a month or two months, any more than a refrigerator is designed to be powered off for a day. The food will spoil.

I can’t predict how and to what extent things will go haywire in the US, but my ramblings through the dead zone that used to be a thriving town give me the dreadful impression that the pain has only begun. Our economic and societal system has been fundamentally broken. Whether it can ever be repaired, I don’t know. I certainly hope it can be. In the immediate future, though, I expect more hunger, more breadlines, and ever-more urgent demands for intervention and salvation from the same authorities that inflicted this nightmare on us in the first place.

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