BY JESSE HASKINS • AGRICULTURE LAW
Buying groceries at a grocery store right now can be downright scary. Vulnerable groups, like the elderly, have good reason to be scared. Grocery stores have drawn especially large crowds, which may consist of people infected with the coronavirus. And grocery stores have plenty of potentially contaminated surface: grocery carts, tongs, self-serve areas, sliding doors storing refrigerated foods, and door handles. Indoors, cough droplets [rest on surfaces that people may rest their hands on. Then they touch their faces.
In general, the more ventilated an area, the lower the risk of transmission, says Dr. Lamar Hasbrouk, a former CDC epidimiologist. King County in Washington recommends capping indoor groups at ten people, but outdoor events at fifty. Grocery stores tend to be confined, indoor spaces. They are a potential place of coronavirus transmission.
Yet, that is just the grocery store itself. Industrial food makes a long journey, with plenty of food handler contact along the way. Someone has to build, maintain, and clean pallets, the trays used to carry food. Someone has to place food on pallets. Someone has to make sure that food bounces from distribution center to distribution center. Someone has to put on those price lookup (PLU) stickers on produce. Because of this long and multifaceted distribution chain, there is a greater chance that someone handling food—or surfaces that touch food, will be infected.
In contrast, local food systems do not rely on convulated distribution chains. The grower may be the only person handling the food. And if the grower has an established reputation in the community of taking necessary safety precaution (like wearing gloves), the grower can be trusted. While grocery stores have been hotbeds of crowds, farmers’ markets have been calm—almost too relaxed. The normal restraints of social distancing have sometimes gone out the window at farmers markets. At farmers’ markets, shoppers hug each other. Although farmers’ markets are not sanctuaries from the coronavirus, local food systems can take extra precautions, like prepackaging produce in to-go containers and offering home delivery. With these extra features, local food systems win on safety against industrial food.
And local food systems may be closing the convenience gap with industrial food. Convenience appears to be the major reason why industrial food is so popular. Shoppers go to grocery stores for the location, and for the long hours grocery stores are open. A survey by Marcia Ruth Ostrom found complaints about wrong vegetables and limited seasons is the leading reason why people leave community supported agriculture farms. One quarter of survey respondents left CSA programs for this reason. Grocery stores’ prior convenience advantage may be diminishing as grocery stores are shortening their hours to prepare for Coronavirus. Long lines are becoming commonplace, and grocery stores are unable to supply basic items because of consumer hoarding.
Local food systems should become more appealing in terms of both safety and convenience. Small-scale growers and distributors may see an increased interest in their work. Therefore, it is especially important to improve infrastructure through buying clubs and community supported agriculture, as I previously blogged about.
Jesse Haskins serves as vice president for Ecology Florida, and maintains a law practice emphasizing small scale agriculture. Prior to dedicating his practice to local agriculture, Jesse served as assistant attorney general for the State of Florida, assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Financial Services, and as attorney for a large insurance defense firm.