It’s not surprising, then, that people have turned to cooking for sustenance and reassurance during the pandemic. Comfort foods—warm, hearty, reminiscent of easier times—have boomed. No longer able to travel, some people have learned to make dishes from far-off places. To avoid going to the store, others have developed creative ways of using the miscellaneous ingredients in their pantries. The resilience of one person is dependent on the labor of others. It is only possible for people to stay home and bake their own bread because of the essential workers—supermarket stockers and cashiers, farmworkers and meatpacking workers—who risk their lives to make sure that the food chain keeps running.
The “food stories” in this essay are narratives about uncertainty, stress, exhaustion, and gratitude. They show us how people use food to keep connections alive. They also show us that people’s resilience is interconnected and defined by class. And social policies that support or ignore people during crises can reduce or exacerbate stark inequalities in how people experience the pandemic and its consequences.
Cristina, Mexico City, Mexico
“Fíjate que sí cambió mi relación con mis vecinos (you know, my relationship with my neighbors did change),” Cristina says. She recalls how during the first few months of the pandemic, she and her neighbors in her Mexico City middle-class neighborhood began sharing food with each other. Although she had known her neighbors for years, it was not until the quarantine that they started really talking.
One night, Cristina brought her neighbor some lasagna, a dish she had learned to cook as a result of the extra time she had gained while working from home. A few nights later, her neighbor dropped off a casserole. For the next few weeks, they shared food with each other as a way to interact during a strange time.
Cristina, a part-time college professor, and her husband Eduardo, a consultant for the local government, are both in their 70s and live in the home they bought 35 years ago. Their daughter, in her 20s, lives nearby and comes to visit almost daily. When COVID-19 began to spread in Mexico in mid-March, Cristina and her husband began working from home.
Cristina no longer spends the morning battling Mexico City traffic and has more time to enjoy her meals. Her daughter comes to have breakfast with them every morning, and Cristina cooks things such as huevos con tortilla. In contrast, before the pandemic, she would guzzle a cup of coffee as she rushed out the door, grabbing a nutrition bar and yogurt for lunch.
But the work Cristina does around the house has also increased. Data from the United Nations show that women around the world are spending more time doing unpaid “care work” during the pandemic, including spending more time cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. In Cristina’s case, and in the case of many middle-class women, part of the increase is because families can no longer pay someone else to do this work. Previously, Cristina and her husband employed a woman, Isabel, who came to their house five days a week to do the cooking and cleaning. There are 2.5 million domestic workers in Mexico, and 90 percent are women—often indigenous women from rural areas who come to cities to find work.
Middle-class women like Cristina have made their lives work in part by relying on other women (often poor women of color and immigrant women) to perform some of the most intimate tasks for their families. The disruption of these ties during the pandemic has imposed costs on both the care workers and their employers.
During Mexico’s stay-at-home order, Cristina paid Isabel to stay home. Cristina is now doing most of the cooking and cleaning in her household, while her work hours have not decreased. Her husband has not taken on additional housework. Cristina says she appreciates having the time to learn to bake new things, like pan dulce and conchitas (traditional sweet bread) that she previously would have bought at the bakery. But fusing her professional work and home routines is stressful. It is now common for her to be giving lectures and cooking at the same time, she laughs.
Luisa, Raleigh, United States
“Toca comer lo que hay (you have to eat what is there),” says Luisa of cooking with the unfamiliar ingredients she gets from the food pantry. Prior to the pandemic, Luisa cleaned houses for middle-class families in Raleigh—one of the limited job opportunities available to immigrants who do not have legal documentation. Luisa is proud of her work, but it comes with unstable hours, no job security, and no benefits. And, like many domestic workers, Luisa lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic, with no compensation.
A National Domestic Workers Alliance survey found that by late March, more than 90 percent of domestic workers in the U.S. had lost jobs due to COVID-19. Six months later, the percentage of workers without any jobs was still nearly four times the percentage before the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters of workers received no compensation when their jobs were eliminated.
After losing her job, Luisa, a Mexican immigrant who has been living in the U.S. for 15 years, was forced to rely on food pantries to feed her family of three, which includes Luisa, her husband, and their 14-year-old daughter. They are ineligible for most of the social assistance programs that have helped other U.S. families during the pandemic; Luisa’s family didn’t receive unemployment, a stimulus check, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. An Urban Institute report found that there had been an increase in unmet basic needs in immigrant communities because immigrant families are ineligible for or reluctant to use key federal relief programs.
Growing up in Mexico, Luisa’s family experienced frequent food shortages, and she learned to be resourceful and flexible with food. Recently, she started shopping with a friend who is teaching her how to use coupons. It’s not enough, though. With Luisa no longer working, her family is forced to choose between paying rent or buying groceries. Relying on food pantries often means relying on unfamiliar or unappetizing foods. Sometimes, Luisa gave the foods she received from the pantry to her neighbors because she didn’t know what to do with them.
After trying unsuccessfully to find a food pantry offering foods that were familiar to Luisa and her family, she turned to her network of volunteers to ask where to go. It was difficult for Luisa to seek help; she was used to helping others. “Desafortunadamente me toco a mi” (Unfortunately it was my turn),” she says. Despite the legal and health risks, Luisa now drives over 30 minutes to a food pantry in Durham because it is organized by and serves mostly Latino/a/x/e immigrants. While many non-profit organizations have been working diligently to keep food pantries stocked during a period of unprecedented demand, less attention has been given to the particular foods provided.
Elif, Ghent, Belgium
Elif glances at the photo of a stack of pancakes with three types of berries, bananas, and delicate chocolate shavings. Although it looks like it was taken in a restaurant, Elif, a 27-year-old Turkish-Belgian woman, made it herself. Because they have been working less during the pandemic, Elif and her boyfriend have more time to cook. They started making new dishes for themselves and to share with Elif’s three roommates. When asked if cooking new things is one of the ways she has dealt with isolation and lack of routine during the pandemic, Elif replies, “Exactly. I watched a lot of YouTube, [to find] recipes. I also made a lot of banana bread just for all the roommates. Having something to eat together makes you happy.”
Elif’s experience sounds like that of many professional workers who have been insulated from some of the pandemic’s worst effects as they have shifted to working from home. But Elif works in retail; when the pandemic began, she was employed as an hourly worker at a clothing store. Supported by a labor union as well as a government that provided stimulus money and bill deferral, many non-essential retail workers in Belgium were allowed to do just what epidemiologists and some policymakers have advocated: they were paid to stay home. Once the shops reopened and Elif went back to work in June, her hours were cut to 12 per week, but her labor union made sure that her wages wouldn’t be reduced to below the amount stipulated in her contract.
Rather than having to choose between risking her health or facing food insecurity or eviction, Elif stayed home. And for the first time in a while, she had the time to slow down. “Before this, it was always like rush, rush, rush,” she says. “You have to work, go to school, and do stuff. But [during that time], everything stopped. So, you have more time to read books and watch some documentaries. And a lot of people [did] that and I think that’s a good thing for the future.”
Elif’s experience is not universal, even in Belgium or other parts of Europe. Poverty and food insecurity exist in Belgium, with food pantries reporting an increase in demand during the pandemic, although not nearly as dramatic as what has happened in the U.S. One of Elif’s roommates does not belong to a union, and experienced minor food shortages when she lost her job. However, Elif’s experience shows that the way countries protect—or fail to protect—workers is a choice.
The devastating effects of the pandemic—its effects on health and well-being, poverty and food insecurity, and even social relations—will reverberate for years to come. During these hard times, food and cooking have served as meaningful sources of comfort for many people. At the same time, food has also been a source of stress and strain, with rising rates of food insecurity and long lines at food pantries. In the face of all of this, people are resilient, finding new ways to connect with others, share food in a socially distanced way, and support those who are struggling. But this resilience is linked to inequality.
Sociologist Alison Alkon and colleagues argue that during the pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that many countries, including the U.S., do not have adequate resources to support food-insecure households or work protections to ensure that our lowest paid workers can make it through this crisis safely. During this crisis and beyond, we must build up our social safety net, to support all people and allow everyone the freedom to find spaces of creativity and connection, and care and comfort.
Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.