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COVID-19 Didn’t Break the Food System. Hunger Was Already Here.

Like everything else in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, American food has become almost unrecognizable overnight.

When English colonists first invaded North America, they departed from a nation that was experiencing a period of relative food stability. This is not to say that early modern Europeans did not experience their own seasonal cycles of scarcity and plenty. There’s a reason why Lent falls in late winter and early spring – when winter food stores are depleted – and feasts of thanksgiving are traditionally held in autumn– when food supplies are at their most abundant after the harvest.

Nevertheless, English colonists arrived in North America largely unprepared to face hunger. Expecting an Edenic landscape of plenty, they found scarcity. The crops they brought with them did not necessarily thrive in new environments, especially in the harsh climate of the Little Ice Age. Their dreams of finding sustenance without labor were totally unrealistic. Indigenous peoples, while sometimes intrigued at the possibility of new trading partners, were not willing to sustain these hungry invaders.

The colonists’ greed brought them horrors. By late 1609 the colonists of Jamestown, Virginia, were under siege from the Powhatans (who had quickly lost their patience with the invaders) and faced dwindling food supplies. Over the winter of 1609 and 1610, the hungry colonists ate rats, shoes, and then each other. George Percy, then the English leader of Jamestown, would later write of a man who “murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode.” Archaeological excavations of the site have unearthed a teenage girl’s skull with knife marks that suggest she was butchered and eaten. The remaining colonists were on the verge of abandoning Jamestown and sailing back to England in spring 1610 when the newly-appointed governor, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, sailed up the James River and forced them to return to their outpost. Jamestown had survived the famine, but only barely.

Indigenous Resilience

But societal collapse and cannibalism are not the only ways to handle food shortage. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Indigenous peoples throughout northeastern North America had sophisticated ways of dealing with seasonal hunger. These strategies included literal belt-tightening, botanical knowledge, and humor. In Kanadasaga in what is now New York, the Seneca adoptive family of the English missionary Samuel Kirkland showed him a variety of these practices during a famine in the late spring of 1765. Kirkland’s brother Tekânadie taught him “to take a hitch up in my belt, every day or two,” and to loosen it when he finally had a full meal. The children in the family taught Kirkland to eat white oak acorns, a foraged food. Some of the Seneca men revealed how humor could help communities endure hunger when they teased an emaciated Kirkland that he had become “so light and spry I could run like a deer.”