In last week’s issue, we discussed how technological development could be redesigned to focus on human flourishing and the public good instead of serving ads and padding investors’ pockets. There are many ways that could benefit the public, but one of the most compelling is how it could interact with the food system.

During the pandemic, people who could afford it turned to food and grocery delivery services to avoid contracting the virus. But there were a lot of low-income workers who had to keep the essential stores open and get people’s deliveries to their doors — they didn’t always have good things to say about their employers’ commitment to keeping them safe or providing protective equipment.

I’ve been thinking about how we organize the food system for a while, and there are some aspects of it that don’t make much sense. Every home has a kitchen where people are expected to cook their own meals, and while some enjoy doing that, there are a lot who simply see it as another daily chore that can be costly.

The alternative is to get food from a restaurant or take-out place, but that can be quite expensive if done regularly. While there are food banks and food kitchens, they’re more of a last resort and would struggle to serve a much larger segment of the population.

The question then becomes, is this way of organizing the food system, where food preparation is individualized and the quality of food is dependent on ability to pay, really the best method?

The inequities in the existing food system really struck me in January. St. John’s, where I’m currently based, got around 80 cms of snow in a 24 hour period, which put the metro area under a state of emergency and required the military to be called in to help dig us out.

After “Snowmaggeddon,” as it was dubbed, people had to stay home for about a week as the roads were cleared, and there was growing concern about access to food. Instead of thinking about collective solutions like setting up communal kitchens to distribute meals or delivering food parcels to seniors and those in need, the government responded by opening grocery stores on limited hours with taxis to drive people who didn’t have their own vehicles — transit wasn’t operating.

While that was fine for people who were able to dig themselves out, get to a grocery store and had the money to spend on food, it left a lot of the most vulnerable people to fend for themselves. The situation during COVID-19 hasn’t been much better.

Food delivery apps underpay couriers and haven’t done enough to keep them safe. (Foodora even pulled out of Canada when workers fought back). They charge high commissions to restaurants, which risk putting them out of business. And because those commissions are tied to clauses that force prices to be the same in-store and on the app, a new class-action lawsuit alleges delivery apps are making food more expensive for everyone.

It’s clear we need to do better, but what might that look like?

The future of food imagined by the app companies is one of “ghost kitchens” that you can’t visit in person, with food only available through apps. That might be fine during a pandemic, but I doubt most people want to take the social aspect out of food forever.

Instead of monopolistic apps that leech from everyone — restaurant, diner and courier alike — there’s a communal alternative we should consider.

In Poland, there used to be 40,000 government-subsidized milk bars where people could go get a cheap meal and enjoy some local company. Now, there are just 150 left. In the United Kingdom, there were national kitchens that served inexpensive food during the First World War, and others from the Second World War until the early 1960s, all supported by the government.

While state funding has withered, mutual aid groups have stepped up to do their bit. The National Food Service is trying to build a public option for food in the U.K. by setting up canteens around the country that they hope to turn into social eating spaces in the aftermath of the pandemic. Meanwhile, with schools closed because of the virus, many have continued providing meals to low-income students.

Imagine, for a second, a different way of organizing food. We still have our kitchens and can go to restaurants, but there’s also a local, publicly funded communal kitchen that gives out hot meals and acts as a community space. 

These kitchens could be linked to a new, public delivery infrastructure like we discussed a few weeks ago. Couriers could be treated properly, with good wages, benefits and job protections, if not managing the system themselves. The app could connect local businesses and public services with their communities, and deliveries could even be free for seniors, low-income people, new parents and other groups. Those people could also be eligible for free meals from the communal kitchen, helping to expand existing Meals on Wheels services.

There are many ways a renewed public sector with democratic control could help to improve our lives and communities, but it requires being more deliberate instead of hoping the private market will effectively serve our needs.

Perspectives from around the world

Seth Klein, author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, explains why the pandemic response makes him hopeful for climate action.

Ainslie Cruickshank, a Vancouver-based journalist, breaks down a new report on the need for a climate-focused recovery plan.

Luke Savage, a staff writer at Jacobin, makes the case for a wealth tax in Canada.

Robert Sweeny, Governor-General Award-winning historian, explains how the new Parliamentary Budget Office report sheds light on wealth inequality in Canada.

James Hutt, senior manager of programming at The Leap, argues for fare-free transit and a better transport system.

David Gray-Donald, former publisher of Briarpatch Magazine, argues progressive groups should make a bid for Torstar.

Grace Blakeley, author of Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted Our Politics, explains how the pandemic concentrates economic power in the hands of the state and emerging private monopolies.

Alicia Elliott, author of A Mind Spread Out On the Ground, writes about how it’s so hard to stop shopping even during a pandemic.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Jathan Sadowski, author of Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World, about how smart technologies are allowing governments and corporations to increase their control over our lives. I also wrote about how Jean Chrétien’s austerity made Canada less prepared for COVID-19, and how socialist visions of the future blinded by tech or obsessed with growth won’t save us from the climate crisis.

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