Two years ago, the emergence of a novel coronavirus in the central city of Wuhan brought life in China skidding to a halt. Wet markets and stores shuttered their doors; food delivery services struggled to keep up with demand; and grocery apps ran out of stock. For the first time I could remember, finding enough food to eat was a problem.
Living in Shanghai, hundreds of kilometers from Wuhan, I didn’t experience the worst of the shortages during the initial outbreak. I never thought it would be my city battling the country’s largest COVID-19 wave to date, or that history would repeat itself this way. But, as Shanghai has gone into an extended lockdown, finding food seems to be all anyone can talk about. Comedians joke about digging for vegetables in their neighborhoods, rappers craft rhymes about fighting over food, and residents scroll their social feeds for services still offering fresh vegetables.
Curious how residents were coping with their straitened circumstances, I asked listeners of my podcast to share tips for obtaining and storing fresh food, as well as how to eat better during the pandemic. I got some interesting answers. Some young people said they were living off hometown specialties — mostly meat — sent from their families outside Shanghai. Others said they had reached out to their mothers to learn how to make preserved foods like pickled cabbages and dried vegetables.
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing how and what we eat. This is most obvious during and after lockdowns, as young, takeout-dependent Chinese like me have little choice but to cook at home. But the longer the pandemic drags on, the more people I’ve noticed embracing cooking for its own sake.
Some of the benefits of cooking at home are obvious. For one, it is significantly cheaper than eating out regularly. This dovetails with a renewed interest in frugality among young, economically anxious Chinese, as can be seen from the growing popularity of cheap, near-expired food. Market research firm iiMedia estimates the near-expired food industry will grow from 32 billion yuan a year in 2021 ($5 billion) to over 40 billion yuan by 2025.
Other young people have embraced cooking as a stress reliever. It allows them to disengage from the pressures of their work or the latest depressing news and do something that they can control and find spiritually healing. For some, it’s even become a communal activity, whether in the form of group grocery shopping or potlucks showcasing dishes from your hometown.
Once you start cooking at home, the more glaring the problems with China’s takeout industry become. From cheap, unsanitary packaging to the excessive use of oil, salt, and other additives, takeout offers a quick high and a harsh comedown. And that’s before accounting for plastic waste: Chinese scientists found the country’s takeout industry produced 1.5 million tons of plastic waste in 2017, up nearly eightfold in just two years.
Making your own meals forces you to interact with and think about your food. From buying ingredients to storing them, from learning different cooking methods to understanding nutrition, home cooks begin to see foods in more varied and diverse ways.
In my case, that has primarily involved composting. When Shanghai implemented a strict new waste-sorting system in 2019, dealing with “wet” cooking waste became a tiresome affair. After learning about home composting, I decided to give it a shot. Once I had successfully managed to produce fertilizer, it seemed a waste not to use it, so I decided to try my hand at another rising fad: a balcony garden.
I’ve never had much of a green thumb, but I found growing vegetables refreshing. I felt like a student again, doing experiments in my room. When the seeds sprouted, I was so excited that I screamed. As an only child without any experience raising pets, I suddenly felt the joy of the birth of life.
Food waste activists often complain that the natural cycle of food production and decomposition breaks down in cities. They have a point. A 2019 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that less than 2% of biological nutrients in food byproducts and organic waste in cities are reused, whether in compost or other forms.
More tragically, the 98% of urban food waste that is not recycled often winds up in municipal landfills, where it not only isn’t put to productive use, but also can be actively harmful. To name just one example, food spoilage in landfills has been linked to increased methane emissions. This problem is particularly acute in China, where food waste typically accounts for about half of total municipal waste.
Most of the time, these problems are easy to ignore amid the abundance of modern urban life. Perhaps only crises like the current pandemic have sufficient power to shock us and remind us how valuable and hard-earned our material abundance really is. But when we look around, what do we see? Comedy sketches aside, some Shanghai residents did consider harvesting the wild plants scattered across urban green belts, only to realize that they’re purely ornamental, not to mention coated with pesticides.
It might be time for a different approach to urbanism. If so, food is a good place to start. It is the one part of nature no person, no matter how urbanized, can do without, and a renewed understanding of food — where it comes from, what it takes to produce, and how environmentally damaging our current system of industrialized food production can be — is vital if we are to navigate crises like climate change.
Before COVID, I often ate takeout once or twice a week. In the past year, I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve ordered out. Many of my friends report similar experiences. It’s not always easy to find a silver lining to COVID-19, but it has made me realize that food is not just another commodity. It’s a gift from nature: something that binds us to our planet in ways both obvious and subtle. Sooner or later, we'll have to build a more sustainable food system. Why not now?
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Two women carry vegetables in Shanghai, March 30, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)