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

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

Carla Cevasco

Like everything else in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, American food has become almost unrecognizable overnight. Grocery stores picked clean of pantry items and baby formula. Closed schools jeopardizing millions of students’ access to meals. Restaurants converting to delivery and takeout, or shutting their doors, perhaps never to reopen. Produce rotting in the fields as lines at food banks stretch for miles. Everywhere, essential workers on the front lines of the food system – field workers, shelf-stockers, cashiers, gig economy shoppers, warehouse workers, cooks, delivery drivers – fear COVID-19 exposure and are fighting for workplace protections.

In homes isolated by social distancing, those with well-stocked pantries are learning how to cook dried beans or bake sourdough bread from scratch. But the 37 million Americans who already face food scarcity on a regular basis have found themselves even worse off than before.

It has been particularly surreal to watch all of this happen while working on my book about hunger in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America. The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the hunger underneath the rhetoric of American plenty.1 When it comes to hunger, Early America offers quite a few worst case scenarios, from starvation to cannibalism. But it also offers alternative models for surviving, and even thriving, under conditions of scarcity.

Colonial Hungers

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.2

Painting of a group of 16th century men and women dressed in simple homespun capes and dresses, in a snowy path. Women wear white head scarves and men wear pilgrim hats.
“Pilgrims Going To Church.” (George Henry Boughton / New York Historical Society | Wikimedia Commons)

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.3

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.4 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

Portrait of Samuel Kirkland. (Augustus Rockwell | Wikimedia Commons)

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.”5

Just as humor helped people to survive, so too did horror. Algonquian-speaking nations of northern North America tell stories of a cannibalistic monster, most often called the Windigo in English. The Windigo tradition originates within a specific ecological and social context. Traditionally, in the winter, family bands migrated into northern forests to hunt moose and other game. The stakes of the hunt were high: if the family did not hunt enough meat, they could starve. But even more terrifying than starvation was the threat of the Windigo, a monster who was ravenously hungry, even for human flesh. One Passamaquoddy and M’ikmaq story described the monster as a thin old man with “shoulders and lips … gnawed away, as if, when mad with hunger, he had eaten his own flesh.”6

For Indigenous peoples, the Windigo is a warning against not just cannibalism, but greed in the midst of resource scarcity. Generations of Indigenous thinkers have argued that the Windigo has taken the form of the rapacious extraction and violence of capitalism and colonization. In the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, an environmental scientist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, “Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.”7

But the winter hunts were not only about starvation and hardship. Indigenous families also used the cold season to turn inward, to foster traditions of reciprocity and resilience. Hunting bands shared meat with each other. Elders shared stories to educate younger people. Families and communities endured the long winters. Colonialism challenged the maintenance of these winter ways, but traditions of Indigenous resilience have endured centuries of invasion.8

Enduring Scarcity

The COVID-19 crisis has compounded hundreds of years of colonial mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Native Americans face terrifying rates of disease and death in communities already besieged by health disparities, poverty, environmental racism, and hunger. “Indigenous communities have been continuously working to try to provide sustenance to a largely food insecure population, work made more pressing by the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Elizabeth Hoover, author of the forthcoming From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds’: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement.9 In response to the pandemic, Indigenous peoples throughout North America continue to draw on their food traditions: hunting, fishing, foraging, seed-saving, gardening, canning, redistributing. As Brian Yazzie, a Diné chef, told the New York Times: “Indigenous peoples survived colonization, and so has our food and ingredients. Practicing our foodways is a sign of resiliency.”

COVID-19 has forced many Americans to reckon with scarcity, as the pandemic exacerbates existing inequality, poverty, and hunger. The urgent task, of course, is saving lives, but the pandemic is also an opportunity for reflection on the past and the future. As Kimmerer states, “It is not just changes in policies that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy.”10

Early American food history shows colonial and Indigenous responses to food shortage: violence and cannibalism on one hand, or reciprocity and resilience on the other. Calls to “reopen” the American economy, no matter the cost to human lives (and they are disproportionately the lives of people of color), are the same old ravenous howls of colonial capitalism. But there are other choices. Americans do not need to eat each other in order to survive. In seeking alternatives, non-Natives must be careful not to simply appropriate Native foodways.11 Instead, the task will be finding the policy, stories, compassion, and communities that will enable people to endure the long hungry season of the pandemic.


  1. On the idea of plenty in American food history, see Amy Bentley, “Sustenance, Abundance, and the Place of Food in United States Histories,” in Writing Food History: A Global Perspective, eds. Kyri Claflin and Peter Scholliers (London and New York: Berg, 2012): 72–86. Return to text.
  2. Carla Cevasco, “Hunger Knowledges and Cultures in New England’s Borderlands, 1675–1770,” Early American Studies 16, No. 2 (April 2018): 260–267. Return to text.
  3. On food in the early years of colonial invasion, see Kathleen Donegan, Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Katherine A. Grandjean, “New World Tempests: Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War,” WMQ 68, No. 1 (2011): 75–100; and Michael A. Lacombe, Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). Return to text.
  4. Other scholars have questioned whether cannibalism at Jamestown actually happened. See Rachel B. Herrmann, “‘The Tragicall Historie’: Food and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,” William and Mary Quarterly 68, No. 1 (2011): 47–71. Return to text.
  5. Samuel Kirkland, The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, ed. Walter Pilkington (Clinton, N.Y.: Hamilton College Press, 1980), 35; and Cevasco, “Hunger Knowledges and Cultures,” 275–280. Return to text.
  6. Charles G. Leland, The Algonquin Legends of New England (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Seaerle & Rivington), 223. Return to text.
  7. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 304. See also Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Cannibalism, rev. ed. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008); and Shawn Smallman, Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History (Toronto: Heritage, 2014). Return to text.
  8. On Indigenous winter resilience, see Thomas M. Wickman, Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), especially Chapters 1 and 5. On Indigenous alliances and distribution of food, see Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 275–276. Return to text.
  9. See also Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health, eds. Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). Return to text.
  10. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 376. Return to text.
  11. Non-Native appropriation of Native foods can have devastating consequences for Indigenous communities. Hoover notes that pandemic-era media attention to nonperishable Indigenous foods has led to shortages of traditional foods in Native communities. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo [Saturn devouring his son]. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Carla Cevasco is assistant professor of American Studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Her book, Violent Appetites: Hunger, Natives, and Colonists in the Northeastern Borderlands, is under contract with Yale University Press.