Stepping up to the Plate

Expert Profiles

Catherine Bertini is a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Ms. Bertini is the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate for her transformational leadership at the UN World Food Program, which she directed for ten years. She is the founder of the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education, which supports programs to increase opportunities for girls and women to attend school. As a United Nations Under Secretary General, she led UN humanitarian missions to the Horn of Africa and to Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Ms. Bertini is a professor emeritus at Syracuse University, board member of the Stuart Family Foundation, and the Global Food Banking Network, former Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and chair of the board of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).


Ertharin Cousin is a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, and Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Ms. Cousin served as the Executive Director of the UN World Food Program from 2012 until 2017. Prior to her global hunger work, she served as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of America’s Second Harvest (now Feeding America). Previously, Ms. Cousin served as Senior Vice President for Albertson’s Foods and was appointed by the US President to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. Ms. Cousin has been named on the Forbes “100 Most Powerful Women” list, as the Fortune “Most Powerful Woman in Food and Drink,” on TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” list, and as one of the “500 Most Powerful People on the Planet” by Foreign Policy magazine.

Episode Transcript


[Introduction 00:00]

Ertharin Cousin 1:  So it is a system that has, over the years, been streamlined to become more efficient. We now see how efficiency fails.

Julia Hesse-Fong 1: From Chicago Studies and the Program on the Global Environment at the University of Chicago, this is Hidden Gems: Quarantine Edition.
Kimika Padilla 1: Where we discuss the implications of shelter-in-place by bringing special guests, student voices, and feel good features…from our homes to yours.

K2: I’m Kimika

J2: I’m Julia

Sofia Garrick 1: And I’m Sofia…

S2: In this episode, we focus on food insecurity and food pathways. With local and global food supply chains disrupted, recent challenges due to COVID-19 have illuminated the food pathways connecting the farm to our plates. In addition, programs like school meals and food pantries have been overwhelmed or needed to completely change where and how they provide food assistance.

J3: We spoke with two esteemed women leaders, Ertharin Cousin and Catherine Bertini, about domestic food insecurity in light of the pandemic. We ask them: How have food banks, schools, and communities responded to the challenges the pandemic has posed in getting food to people? And how can supply chains be reformed, both for now and for the future, to bridge their disconnects and ensure that communities have stable access to nutritious food?

[Pandemic and Food Insecurity 01:40]

EC2: My name is Ertharin Cousin. I am a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University, and the CEO and founder of an innovative food systems program called Food Systems for the Future. 

Catherine Bertini 1:  I’m Catherine Bertini. Also a Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I was Executive Director of the World Food Program, and I am the Chair of the Board of GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

K3: The UN World Food Program recently warned that 130 million people around the world could be pushed to the brink of starvation due to the pandemic, with many more left without adequate food and nutrition. According to Feeding America, 54 million people in the U.S. could go hungry without help from food banks and food stamps. So, we asked how does this pandemic exacerbate issues of food insecurity in the United States? 

EC3: Catherine, why don’t you start?

CB2: We’ve got so many challenges in our communities around the globe. Especially helping people get access to food. And that is not new in many communities, but it’s exacerbated greatly by the fact that so many people are out of jobs, people are confined to homes, and because restaurants have closed and other institutions have closed, many of the normal food chains aren’t operating. And as a result, there are a lot of disconnects between what farmers can provide and what consumers need.

EC4: And to put a finer point on the challenges here at home, before the pandemic, there were 37 million Americans that were food insecure. and served by the 200 food banks around the country and the 50,000 agencies and many people receiving SNAP benefits. After the pandemic was declared and we began a lockdown here in the United States, you now have 36 million Americans who are filing for unemployment. And what we’ve learned very quickly is how many Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. And as a result, if they don’t get a paycheck, they can’t feed their families. And so the food banks have seen tremendous growth in the lines. And you’ve seen pictures of that on news reports of families who never thought they’d find themselves standing in the line for food suddenly being completely dependent upon the charitable food system in order to feed their families...We also have seen the food banks that are filling in that gap to address challenges to the food system. They are short of volunteers because people are locked down, and so they’re hesitant to come out and volunteer for the food banks. So all of this is creating this perfect storm on a system that was already quite fragile here in the United States. 

[Local and Global Food Supply Chains 04:23] 

K4: To understand food insecurity, we first need to talk about the food system at large. The food system encompasses all of the hands and stops our food passes through on the long journey to our plates. 

S3: You know Kimika, I’ve often wondered where my food comes from. I’m from Los Angeles and whenever I’ve made the drive up to the Bay Area to visit family, I can’t help but notice the rows upon rows of almond trees in California’s Central Valley and wonder about the people who harvest these almonds, how they get passed to processing plants, and finally when they land in the grocery store.  

J4: Sofia, what you’re describing is the food supply chain. It’s already hard to visualize the countless hands, steps, and miles for the almonds we eat to get to the grocery stores around the state and the country. But considering that we also eat so many different kinds of foods, the network of food production becomes incredibly complex. So it might be easier to understand this food supply chain by visualizing it as a web of interconnected pathways, not all heading in the same direction, but instead building a network that supports the food system together both locally and globally.

EC5: We have two major food supply chains in the United States. One that feeds the canteens, the restaurants, the schools, and other large institutions, and one that feeds retail food systems. When the restaurants were closed and schools were closed, that supply chain that supports those institutions collapsed--closed down. So as one of the executives from the dairy industry said to me, if you produce cheese in a 400 pound wheel, there’s no market for that if the distributor closes down. And so what we’ve seen are the, again, the pictures that have been so widely broadcast with dairymen pouring out tanks of milk because they know there’s no distribution system for that supply. And farmers plowing under fields of produce because there’s no distribution system for that supply. And so it is a system that has, over the years, been streamlined to become more efficient. We now see how efficiency fails.

S4: This efficiency is dependent on the two major food supply chains functioning without disruption. In an increasingly volatile world, the lack of resilience in these supply chains has been cast into the public eye due to the pandemic. 

J5: However, there are ways communities are building this resilience on their own. Catherine shared with us an example from her own community in upstate New York. 

CB3: We have a small county, 49,000 people, but a very active hunger coalition. And one of the things that they’re doing, and this is something can be mobilized in any community around the country or in many communities around the world. So the community groups are interacting with the local farmers and are making arrangements to be able to buy from the farmers for their organizations. The farmers normally would sell to big commercial enterprises, for instance, and even some smaller stores, but now, food banks are going to them, for instance, and saying, we have a certain amount of customers, meaning people who are coming for additional food assistance. And then, the farmers, whether they’re producing cattle or milk, for instance, are now programming their own distribution to be able to sell that to these smaller groups of consumers through these community organizations. So it’s something that can be done and is being done here. That’s not to say that we’re serving everybody that we could. We’re trying for sure, but there’s a need to do this, I think, in communities throughout the country. 

EC6: The program that Catherine highlighted is one that the USDA has now formalized that would support the purchase of commodities, fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, prepared chicken from farmers, and then have those commodities placed into boxes that are then distributed by nonprofit institutions, including food banks...This is a program that as Catherine noted, a number of the food banks on their own have developed and implemented and have scaled during this pandemic crisis that now the U.S. government has begun to fund as of the start of May. This farm to box program is looking to make more food available to vulnerable populations, but also provide more income to those farmers who have no markets now for their product. 

S5: The Farm to Family program is an important example of how creative solutions have been scaled up to reroute broken supply chains--and hopefully, make it possible for them to serve more diverse markets in the future, too. 

J6: That’s right, Sofia. Creating more resilient, equitable food pathways is necessary to improve food insecurity in the U.S. and abroad.

K5: So we asked, what would it look like to create a more resilient food system?  

EC7: The food system will continue to evolve. What COVID will do is sharpen the focus on moving beyond just the efficiency of global supply chains, but also creating diversity in supply chains to create more localized and regional supply chains that will benefit not just the consumers, but also the farmers...The suggestion that we will no longer have a global food system, I think is a non-starter. We will continue to have commodities, particularly those commodities that make up the 60% of all global diets: rice and wheat and other grains, you will continue to see those global supply chains become ever more robust and it is important that we maintain those supply chains during this crisis. But you will also see investments in shortening supply chains around what are called specialized crops. More produce--fruits, vegetables.

J7: One way to improve resilience is to strengthen the local food supply chains around the world to complement our global food system. This is something that we can already see happening right here in Chicago.

EC8: What we’ve also seen is the Illinois Farmers Alliance coming together to promote the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program. Because more consumers at every economic level are demanding more local produce. And this is an opportunity for consumers to use online services to purchase that additional produce that is now available from local Illinois farmers. 

[Food Assistance 11:54]

S7: Food assistance is another important dimension.

K7: While food banks often receive more national attention, government programs like SNAP--the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--serve nine times as many hungry people. As demand for food assistance surges due to the economic crisis, food banks are struggling to fill in the gap. 

S8: Food access advocates say the government needs to step up to the plate.

EC9: The community of advocates on behalf of those who received SNAP benefits have been working with Congress to increase that benefit by 15%. And every single one of the CARES acts that have passed so far has eliminated and not included that benefit. And when we talk about the lack of access to income in these communities, and the failure of government to increase benefits, then we are completely dependent upon the charitable system to support their needs, or people don’t have access to food.

J8: So, now more than ever, an increasing number of Americans only have the charitable system to rely on. How have food banks and pantries responded to the challenges of COVID-19?

EC10: Well, let me say, the food banks have, they struggle as all of the frontline, facilities and operators struggle, to ensure that they protect their workers as well as perform their work. There were the challenges early on with having enough access to masks and gloves to support the work that they needed to do. They’re now getting the tools that are required to keep their workers safe….One of the major challenges that both the food banks and the pantries are seeing today are volunteers. The system is completely supported by volunteer labor. And because many people are sheltering in place, they do not have adequate volunteers. And so I encourage all of your listeners to this podcast to volunteer at your local shelter, volunteer at your local food bank. I can assure you that the precautions are in place to protect you as an individual and to give you the ability to give back even during this challenging time.

[School Meals and Gender 14:20]

S9: In addition to food banks and food stamp programs like SNAP and WIC, many children in the U.S. eat free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school. But with the schools closed, how have these programs adapted to meet students’ needs?

EC11: When schools are closed, they no longer receive benefits. So what we have is what’s called the P-EBT program, the Pandemic EBT, that provides an extra benefit for those students who were receiving reduced lunches in schools.The parents get additional money on their SNAP benefit to buy food. Well, what if you weren’t receiving a school lunch, and now your parents were unemployed and you also don’t have access to school meals? And so you have many schools that are distributing meals around the country because students don’t, young people don’t have access to food.

CB4: What’s happened around the country is that there are different ways that food is distributed to families. Sometimes for the whole week, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a couple of days, people drive up or walk up and get a bag or a box of food for the children and that has been able to be a life saver. I think in a lot of situations there used to be a rule, or I suppose there is a rule that’s been now suspended or somehow at least temporarily put aside, that said that you had to be, have congregate feeding. You had to bring all the children together and that’s where you were fed. So they’ve changed that now, so that you can just give out food to families who come up or children that come up. 

K8: Also, to bring in an international perspective: Catherine founded the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education, which supports programs to increase opportunities for women and girls to attend school. So we asked her, how does school feeding impact girls’ nutrition and education?

CB5: Sure. Well, first of all, feeding children at school makes a huge difference in the children’s own capacity. Studies have shown, for instance, that breakfast is especially important. Lunch also, but so many children come to school without having had any dinner or adequate dinner. So breakfast is extremely important. The studies have shown that it makes a difference in terms of decreasing absenteeism, increasing standardized test scores, increasing the attention span that children have in school, and any teacher, any teacher that you know, will tell you that it makes a difference if a child is not hungry. So that’s true for girls and boys anywhere worldwide. What’s especially important for girls is to use food to be able to not only help sustain them, but sometimes help even get them to school. Sometimes it’s the incentive that a father needs who’s not inclined to send his daughter to school...that she is going to be fed at school. That takes away his responsibility to feed her during the day...World Food Program in some communities, gives out packages of food. After a girl has been in school for one month, she can bring home a package of food. So that’s also shown to be a very important incentive for fathers and families to decide to send their girls to school.


[Final Reflection and Call to Action 17:09]

J9: So in closing, Ertharin and Catherine offered some final thoughts to share with our listeners.

CB6: Nutrition is critical to healthy life. But it’s been forgotten by the health industry and the agriculture industry who have had other priorities. So one of the silver linings I hope that comes out of this crisis is that policy-makers, industry leaders, community activists all understand that nutrition is critically important in health and in agriculture and ought to be a primary focus both why what kind of health care we provide on an ongoing basis and and why we grow food.


EC12: For students, particularly women students. We need more women professionals in nutrition and agriculture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around the table where there was one other woman maybe when we were having a conversation about agricultural programs. Between 40% and 70% of those who perform the labor of agriculture are women and in many of these cultures, women are not allowed to attend the training classes that are led by men…So getting more women into a position to lead in this space is critical. 

EC13: Our food system, whether domestic or international requires change and we are bringing on new innovations to address the gaps in the food system. We must ensure that new market-based businesses from the farm to how we dispose of waste come online, but not just for the benefit of the affluent. Too often innovations that come online the markets that are developed are for the affluent farmers and affluent consumers. And as a result, we are creating ever greater disparity in how we produce as well as how we consume. We must overcome this challenge by seeing the opportunity in small farmers, providing the tools that are necessary for them to become more efficient and part of systems that support the reduction in lost food and that will require investors as well as governments thinking different about vulnerable populations as markets. As that thinking evolves, we can begin to address the challenges that Catherine spoke of. Of access to nutritious food, not just through programs, but through market systems that allow for everyone, everywhere universal access to affordable nutritious food.

K9: The current situation has magnified systemic inequalities and exposed vulnerabilities in our food system. 

S10: From disrupted food chains to unequal access to healthy food, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to support existing programs and build more resilient food pathways.

J10: And it is critical that we fund the programs working to fight food insecurity, and that we continue to support local food producers and organizations within our own cities.  

[Conclusion 21:02]

S11: And while we’re staying at home, millions of front-line workers are helping to deliver food, essentials, and medical care to people around the world. 


K10: This week, we would like to thank food pantry workers and volunteers for providing nutritious food to families in need. You can donate or sign up to volunteer with the Greater Chicago Food Depository at    


J11: And thank you for listening to our podcast. You can visit our website at to view accompanying images, to find source information for our music and sound effects, and to subscribe to upcoming episodes! 


S12: This podcast is sponsored by the Program on the Global Environment and Chicago Studies at the University of Chicago. 


K11: This has been Hidden Gems.

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