the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
“more than 800 million people live every day with hunger or food insecurity as their constant companion,”
Last year, amid the COVID-19 crisis and all that I experienced between shutdown and the inevitable life changes, I wrote a piece called What I Learned on my Coronavirus Vacation. Now it’s a year later, the pandemic has lasted longer than anticipated, and I now realize that somehow, according to some grand plan, I was supposed to be prepared for this time in our history. It’s been a wild ride, preceded in early 2019 with a premonition that many people were going to die around me, followed by what I refer to as“Covid Boot Camp.”
“Covid Boot Camp” in late 2019 included canceled trips, Level 4 State Department advisories, illness which required foreign hospitalization, upper respiratory infection in early 2020, isolation, then shutdown. Even before Covid, I got to experience it all, which included hearing the words “community spread” from my doctor when she explained how I had contracted non-Covid related pneumonia and had to wear masks before it became “fashionable. “I got the prescient feeling in 2019 that I should stock up on regular medications in case there was some sort of shortage or inability to get to the drugstore. I told the drugstore that I needed a vacation supply when I really didn’t. I had a sense of foreboding I couldn’t exactly identify or truly understand.
But what did this unusual set of scenarios and all that followed demonstrate? Surely, we must come through something this traumatic with new values instilled in us, with additional enlightenment and insight. I suppose I also need to look back on my three weeks in Peru in October and November 2019 prior to all hell breaking loose with civil unrest in Bolivia as an additional foreshadowing. Peru has some of the most spectacular food on the planet. I call it the Paris of South America in that regard. Even Cusco, where I went to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley independently, made me question if I hadn’t accidentally been dropped off in Manhattan instead for a foodie tour. Lima has one of the world’s top chefs who opened up great restaurants in Lima and Arequipa and had an influence all over Peru. Food, and the abundance of really great food, became a surprising part of the trip.
Of course, when we travel, if we are open to it, we can see how others live who are not as lucky. Peru gives the traveler a taste of food that is as spectacular as it is local if not gourmet, with local populations for whom every day trying to eat is a form of survival. Areas inhabited by indigenous people such as in the Shanty Town outside of Lima, or deep in the Peruvian Rainforest are two. Yet they are also not that far outside of Arequipa, Peru where I was staying to acclimate, see the condors, and learn Spanish for twelve days at a combination Spanish language and cooking school. Beautiful, colonial Arequipa, with cooking schools on many corners and warm and friendly people I had come to know who would greet me with a kiss on the check when they saw me, ultimately became the Covid 19 hotspot in all of Peru.
Which brings me back to the current pandemic. Food and a form of food insecurity became an issue in my home rather unexpectedly. I was having regular food deliveries made, and I have a freezer in my garage in addition to one in my kitchen, given to me years back by my Depression Era parents because, “you just never know.” So I really stocked up along with the millions of other people here in Los Angeles County. I was afraid that if I became sick with the virus, I wouldn’t have any way to otherwise get food. Living alone with no children, amid such competition for food, I was truly on my own for survival. I saw how the economic decline affected our country due to the pandemic and learned of middle-class people driving thru long lines to get food here in America. We don’t have to travel overseas to meet people with food insecurity. As I made my online orders and read the messages about deliveries arriving late and many items not always being in stock or limited in supply due to the pandemic, I realized that food insecurity was right in my neighborhood. Yes, we are lucky in many ways. But one mishap, one failure to do something at the right time, one unforeseen event, or a failure in planning for that which is foreseeable, and any of us could be driving to a food pantry looking for our next meal.
This is not to say that I feel for one minute that my life is the same as the truly needy. But having realized the fear of potential food insecurity, I more fully appreciated how much we take food acquisition for granted. Travelers, of all people, should take nothing for granted. We are the ones, after all, who take joy from living out of our suitcases, and take pride in our self-sufficiency by having everything with us that we could possibly ever need for weeks or months on end. Often that includes bringing snack bars and other food neatly tucked into our suitcases. Self- reliance, independence, and always being at the ready on a trip is key to me and many travelers. Yet many feel that after working so hard in challenging careers, travel in our retirement years is a right. We’ve earned it. We want to go overseas and eat at restaurants that will give us lasting memories and gourmet meals we could never have at home. But the real right for all is the ability to get food easily and eat three healthy meals daily. Travel, and all its glorious trappings, is a mere privilege; food security for everyone is the right.
Chef Jose Andres who founded the World Central Kitchen, is really the model for this thinking; a man of international background and stature, whose mission in life is to use his talents to help elevate others by doing what he can to feed the world in need. But I am taken by the name of his organization, because it embodies the very spirit of the Jewish notion of tikkun olam – to the heal the whole world. And that is exactly what he is attempting to do, with his talents and resources in the kitchen as central to his mission to help feed the world during times of greater economic and food insecurity than ever before. We travelers should take his example to heart; it might add humility to our travels, a commodity that is in short supply.
I started group travel combined with my own independent travel six years ago. After over 40 years of travel, I saw the OverseasAdventure Travel literature about “giving back to the world in which we live,” something their Grand Circle Foundation does with both solicited and unsolicited donations. And $10 from every tip booked on either Overseas Adventure Travel or GrandCircle Travel goes to the Foundation. I didn’t have the level of awareness I have now, but that was the point; I said out loud, “Why am I not traveling with a company like that?” By traveling with them, I have met HIV/AIDS orphans in South Africa who had no hope for a future and were barely living in sanitary conditions except for the goodness of the Grand Circle Foundation. On the same trip, I packed a lunch to give to women in Swaziland who were in need of food. I confess that when we were given the instructions to save what we didn’t eat and give it to the women I was protective of my lunch for myself. But when I met the women, saw how they lived, and realized what they didn’t have for food, I handed over my lunch bag in total. My life was an excess of riches by comparison. They could have my lunch.
During independent travels, and as a guest of the owner of Hakku Tours in Lima, I went to the Shanty Town (pueblo joven) for five hours and visited with the residents of Villa El Salvador. Have you ever seen live chickens in the kitchen next to a burning wood fire where they would soon be cooked? Approximately three million people were organized in this one community and established public kitchens, health communities, and centers for education only to have its founder killed by the Shining Path guerillas in the 1970s, who had also found refuge there. Villa El Salvador eventually received a Spanish version of the Nobel Peace Prize for surviving and thriving with such community accomplishments to combat poverty.
And so, between the pandemic, food insecurity worldwide, and my own travels to draw on, I am not traveling during this time with a sense of gratitude, reflection, compassion for others less fortunate, and an awareness and comprehension I’ve never had before. I stay home and enjoy movies about travel like the George Clooney movie Up in the Air, a romantic comedy about a man who is literally travelling on business all but 43 days out of the year. Like me, his life consists of collecting frequent flier miles and hotel points. And sushi. Cheap, airport lounge sushi. It makes him feel like he’s at home with the food he’s come to know the best.
I will be happy to return to the days of cheap airport lounge sushi, drinks and food served in the hotel and airport lounges, a nice warm meal on an airplane, even hotel cookies served at night before bedtime. And I will be forever grateful for the insights I’ve gained during this time in our history. Hopefully we will all become kinder human beings because of it.