The Day All the Free Food Vanished

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently warned America about a possible Chinese cyberattack on our electric grid, transportation centers, and energy facilities that would almost destroy our economy. The impact of such an attack is hardly hypothetical -- countless schools, hospitals and private firms have been hit with such attacks and millions in ransom has been paid to hackers.

Director Wray’s warning singles out our industrial infrastructure such as oil refineries, but left unmentioned in his Armageddon is America’s social service network (the safety nets) that keeps millions afloat financially while meeting their food needs. Critically, few think of all these national and state agencies as part of our vital infrastructure, and so relatively little is invested in protecting them from cyberattack. Nevertheless, measured by both impact and vulnerability, the inflicted damage may far exceed shutting down air travel or disrupting hospitals.

Particularly consequential would be disrupting the government’s program to supply food to those with low incomes. the most important is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called “food stamps.” The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the participation of state agencies. “Food stamps” began in 1964 to help farmers while improving nutrition for low-income Americans.

SNAP benefits reflect a family’s size, income and expenses and is automatically placed in credit card-like Electronic Benefit Cards. In 2023, some 42.1 million Americans, on average, participated in the SNAP program at a cost of $113 billion dollars (with some exceptions, families with a gross monthly income of $3000 or less are eligible). SNAP has generally expanded, especially under President Biden, and covers nearly all food a family might need except for tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, pet food, already cooked food, medicine, and diapers. In 2020, 27% of SNAP recipients were Black.

Like all government programs, it occasionally stumbles. For example, recipients in Georgia recently had their payments delayed due to administrative glitches. Severe weather can also disrupt the transfer of funds as was recently illustrated in several Nebraska counties that lost power due to storms and tornadoes. In both instances, however, the federal government facilitated a quick recovery, and the problems were solved.

But what if Chinese hackers successfully disrupted the entire SNAP network? In an instant millions of Americans across the entire country, all lined up with shopping carts overflowing with food for the next week or two were told, “Sorry, your EBT card failed to work. Do you have another form of payment?” Thousands of frantic messages from local SNAP administrators to Washington would be told, “The entire network is down, we have no idea how to fix it, and it may take weeks to get it running again.”

Since most poor people lack alternative sources of funds such as a credit card or cash, and that many of these SNAP recipients live hand-to-mouth, this collapse is catastrophic. A few may reply on savings or borrowing from friends and family, but for millions, the adage “people are only seven missed meals away from murder” now becomes relevant. This is especially true if children depend on SNAP to provide food. America will suddenly resemble famine-plagued Africa, and alternative sources of food such as free foodbanks will quickly become depleted.

Faced with starvation, mass looting and violence are likely, particularly in cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, N.J., and dozens more that already experienced these disorders. Word will quickly spread to fellow other shoppers that their EBT cards don’t work, and the mayhem will commence. Some just leave the store without paying, groceries in hand. Others will quickly return to “shopping” to stock up before the shelves go bare. Store “security” will be helpless to stop this stampede and calling the police is futile -- no cops will arrest dozens of shoppers fleeing with “free” merchandise. Most urban police forces have repeatedly seen this movie -- arresting criminals can be a recipe for rioting.

Thanks to cell phones and word-of-mouth, the riot is on. With no prospect of government-paid-for food, looting becomes survival. Shoplifters who once favored Dior handbags scoop up Spam. Thousands of small local food stores, many of whom are owned and run by immigrants accustomed to a shoplifting clientele, will be overrun by the desperate. None of this is new -- food riots are historically commonplace, so yet one more feature of the Third World has arrived in America.

Especially in crime-ridden inner cities, gangs will soon take control of food supplies to restore a semblance of order. They might even battle each other for control, and many American cities will come to resemble present-day Haiti.

Government will be defenseless against millions of Americans desperate for food. Frantic public officials might ask chain supermarkets to remain open and distribute food for free with a promise of future federal reimbursement, but this solution -- if ever implemented -- would suffice for only briefly given resupply problems. Nor could mobilizing the National Guard restore order. Worse, after the big-city Wal-Marts and Costcos are depleted, desperate “shoppers” might invade wealthy suburbs and feast on prime beef and imported delicacies. Trucks carrying food will be stopped and ransacked. With suburban markets exhausted, the homes of the wealthy are next. A week or two may pass before the federal government can establish free food distribution centers as they now do in sub-Sahara Africa.

Even if the Department of Agriculture’s computer system is fixed (or the ransom paid) it may be months before the food distribution system returns to normal. Many looted supermarkets are almost unusable, food warehouses a total mess and resupplying cities may require armed convoys since stores are not yet restocked. As occurred in the race-related riots of the 1960s, some cities may never fully recover. Damage will be measured in trillions.

Whether our Chinese enemies are inspired by this possibility, is uncertain. But those who run SNAP and similar food-related programs will likely be oblivious. In 2021, the Department of Agriculture that administers the SNAP program held a conference to announce a $5 billion program to strengthening their services. Conclave participants included experts from the food industry, nutrition and food security, unions and representatives from farm organizations, food workers and nutrition researchers.

Predictably, reversing climate change was paramount, together with expanding government largess. Following countless discussions, these experts concluded,” …equity and inclusion are central to all USDA’s efforts. USDA is advancing equity and inclusion in food systems by supporting historically underserved farmers and ranchers, farm and food workers, business owners and communities; strengthening resilient supply chains and local and regional food systems; and building a fair marketplace for all producers.” Nothing was said about cybersecurity.

One can only wonder how all the talk of “sustainability” ignored the vulnerability of America’s “free food” system. Perhaps like children accustomed to well-stocked supermarkets, Department of Agriculture functionaries happily assume that complex computer networks will always be there, as if Mother Nature herself guaranteed it.

Image: Mike Mozart

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