COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals Frailty of America’s Food System

COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals Frailty of America’s Food System

Dell deChant

By now most Americans have seen images of long lines at food banks around the nation – thousands of cars bumper to bumper in Cleveland, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Pittsburg, and many other cities.  The images are devastating.  How could this happen? The question echoes across the nation, and certainly with urgent distress for those waiting in those thousand-car lines.  How could this happen in our rich nation with the world’s most powerful economy and its most productive agricultural system?  Why has the COVID-19 pandemic left so many Americans desperately short of food?

The answers are many: the administration’s clumsy reaction to the crisis, widespread job losses in the nation’s massive service sector due to tough “stay-at-home” edicts, fear and panic-hoarding, and politicization of responses to the crisis.  Besides these obvious explanations, there are others that are less apparent and unlikely to get much coverage in the 24-hour news cycle, but perhaps more telling.  

While the pandemic reveals government ineptitude, it also reveals the precariousness of other foundational systems.  Healthcare, economics, the media, and education have all been staggered by the sudden eruption of this contagion.  What is failing are the systems themselves – most dramatically, our food system.  

In urban centers around America, grocery stores are facing shortages of basic commodities.  There are empty spaces on shelves, and not just in the paper aisles but also in the food aisles.  Food insecurity has increased, exacerbated by economic inequalities and driven even harder by the collapse of the service sector.  Long and lengthening lines at foodbanks are leading to shortages there as well. Ironically, in the midst of this food crisis, farmers are plowing under crops, dumping milk and eggs, and laying off workers.  

National Guardsman hand out food in Baton Rouge during COVID-19 Pandemic

Why Is This Happening?

Why is this happening?  Those who have been researching America’s foodways have long been aware of the liabilities of the contemporary food system. As a culture, beginning in the 1950s, the industrial food system began a rapid conquest of America’s foodways. This system relies on inflexible structures of the consumerist economic order: long supply lines, with low wage jobs every step of the way; just-in-time inventory processes; enormous mono-crop farms that destroy whole ecosystems; giant food processing plants, stock yards, and slaughterhouses; and vast extractions of oil, water, and phosphates.  

Every food product we consume travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table. We are all dependent on massive quantities of food making this 1,500 mile trek, relying on a rigid, complex system, over which local governments, businesses, and individuals have little control or authority.  We are simply consumers, receiving only what the system delivers to us.  If the system breaks down or even stumbles, there is little that can be done except ask for help, hope the mega-corporations and their complex system can retool quickly enough to avert catastrophe, or look to the federal government for assistance.    

This is exactly what is happening today.  The process is not working. The industrial food system is reacting slowly and with mixed results (watch for more shortages and significant cost increases in basic commodities), the federal government is stumbling into action, and local leaders are hoping for help feeding the food-insecure.  But when it comes to food supplies, there is very little local leaders can do besides hoping and asking for help –  because in most communities there does not exist a viable local food system.  We are at the mercy of systems beyond our ken and out of our control.

The poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the homeless, and all others experiencing chronic food insecurity are facing grave challenges in this moment. They are now joined by countless others, millions nationwide, who likely never had a concern over food in their lives.  As the coronavirus  has highlighted the dramatic weaknesses and tragic inequalities in America’s healthcare system, its consequences may bring to national awareness the dangerous lack of resilience in the industrial food system upon which we have become dependent. Hopefully this will happen and prompt reform, but what would this reform look like?  

What Reform Would Look Like

The reform would have to begin with the recognition that what is happening now is not a fluke, it is also not nearly as serious as it could be.  Image what would happen if more meat-packing plants shut down, if there was a sharp decline in the number of farmworkers harvesting crops, if climate change caused a collapse of grain production in the Midwest, if cheap transportation of food was no longer available, if we lost even more pollinators.  Imagine what would happen if the federal government did not buy up surplus food from the industrial food system and facilitate its distribution.  Imagine if the industrial food system found it more profitable to destroy surplus commodities rather than teaming with food-relief networks.  Imagine a virus even more lethal than COVID-19.

Imagine what would happen if any of those possibilities occurred. Where would our food come from then? The industrial food system is too frail to withstand large-scale cultural traumas, and if reform does not occur, what is happening today will happen again, likely with more dire consequences.  Reform is not impossible, and can begin today, taking many forms, with many options.  It would have food banks also act as seed and seedling banks – offering seeds and seedlings along with basic food supplies.  It would include community vegetable gardens as a part of every public park, and a line item for urban farms in every city’s budget.  Cities would fund staff positions for agricultural  directors and urban gardeners. Local governments would require that new developments include not only green space, but farm space as well.

Government at all levels would offer tax-incentives for replacing lawns and ornamental plantings with vegetable gardens, giving fruit trees to propriety owners, restoring agriculture classes in public schools – especially urban schools. It would include agriculture programs at every public university (not just the land-grant schools) and courses in horticulture as mandatory graduation requirements for all bachelor’s degrees. From pre-school through college, equal or greater stress would be put on learning gardening as is put on learning cyber systems today.

This is not an impossible vision. Not at all. If only a fraction of spending by the USDA, state and local governments, schools of higher education, charities, and emergency feeding organizations was diverted to reforms such as these, the food-crisis we face to today might never have occurred – and if we act now, it need never occur again.

Here are some  articles for additional background reading on the impact of the pandemic on the food system:

The Coronavirus Reveals The ‘Invisible Inequalities’ In Our Food System, Huff Post

Farmers plowing under crops, dumping milkNew York Times

What the Coronavirus means for Food InsecurityThe Hill

Supply chains stressed, but are run by ‘incredible foragers,’ USF expert says, Tampa Bay Times

April saw the sharpest increase in grocery store prices in nearly 50 years, Boston Globe from The Washington Post

US grocery costs jump the most in 46 years, led by rising prices for meat and eggs. CNBC

Dell deChant is the Associate Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida.  He is a Master Instructor and has served at USF since 1986. The author of three books, over 40 articles in professional publications, and chapters in twelve books, deChant’s specialization is religion and contemporary cultures. His current research focuses on religious, literary, and ecological expressions of Agrarianism as they manifest in American popular culture.  

A Land With Too Much Plenty: Food Collapse and Florida’s Future

Too Much Food

A Land with too Much Plenty: Food Collapse and Florida’s Future

Not Feeling the Pinch in the Land of More Than Enough,

Joel Bourne’s The End Of Plenty, Food Collapse and the Florida Future

Editorial: Ecology Florida

Did you get enough to eat yesterday?  For folks reading this article, the answer is probably “yes.” “Yes, thank you, more than enough.”

In America when it comes to food, like just about everything else, we have enough, and more than enough.  We have enough cell phones, computers, cars, dress shoes, cool homes in climate-change summers, cool playlists on iphones, skirts, running shoes, pets, posters, vacation plans, work pants, house plants, business cards, microwave ovens, logo t-shirts – enough, and more than enough.

We certainly have enough food – at least in America, at least for now.

Nearing the End – At Least of Plenty

This is not true in other parts of the world, and those other parts of the world are growing – apparently quite quickly.  According to Joel Bourne, author of the just published, The End of Plenty, we are nearing the point of food collapse – i.e., insufficient food supplies to feed large numbers of the planet’s human residents.

Many factors are contributing to the planet’s food collapse, and most are either not well known or of little concern to Americans. Bourne tells us plenty about these factors in The End of Plenty.  As observed by Dave Davies of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air:

While the Earth’s population is growing rapidly, our ability to feed it is undermined by a loss of arable land due to climate change, growing water shortages, the use of valuable farmland to grow biofuels and the fact that many of us eat so much meat, which is a highly inefficient way to use the grain we grow. [6]

Bourne’s Pinch

These factors are not news to readers of ECFL News, which has editorialized on this topic from time to time – first in 2012, in “Dining and Dreaming at the Top of The World.”[3] Bourne reminds us of what we already know, but which many others do not – at least many who are still dining at the top of the world.   He tells us that:

Here in the United States, we’ve had 2012-2013, you know, we had the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days – cost us $30 billion. So – and what we’re dealing with is sort of the new normal. You know, the researchers say that now we’re going to have to, because of the increased demand from population growth, increased meat consumption in developing parts of the world, that we’re going to have to double our grain production, our food production, by 2050 to make sure everyone’s reasonably fed. And yet, climate change is just starting to really hammer it down, so we’re in a bit of a pinch. [6]

All right, Joel!  A bit of pinch indeed.  We are not feeling it – not yet.  It is still too easy for us to get food (or substance that passes for food).  Food is inexpensive in America. It is also easily accessible.  And so Joel’s bit-of-a-pinch is not being felt by most, and hardly at all by leaders who could be making a difference.

Here is another pinch we are not yet feeling, and of which our leaders appear oblivious:  “we’re looking at having to grow as much food in the next forty years as we have since agriculture began 10,000 years ago. It is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced, and we have to do it without destroying the water, the oceans, the soils, that we all depend on. It’s just – it’s a staggering challenge.” [6]

Two Places to Watch

In the near future, we may begin to see what this challenge looks like, and start to feel a bit of Bourne’s pinching.  The two places to watch are California and the American Midwest.   These are major food production centers for the world, and certainly for the US.  California is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, at the same time that the state has become the source for vast quantities of fruits and vegetables.

Much is being made in the skeptical media that this is not the “worst drought” in California’s history.  It apparently is not.  What is certain, however, is that it is indeed the worst drought in California’s history since the state became the primary supplier for most of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Climate Progress tells us:

Eaten a salad recently? Odds are the lettuce, carrots, and celery came from California. Have a soft spot for stone fruit? California produces 84 percent of the country’s fresh peaches and 94 percent of the country’s fresh plums. It produces 99 percent of the artichokes grown in the United States, and 94 percent of the broccoli. As spring begins to creep in, almost half of asparagus will come from California. [2]

The odds are pretty good, even in Florida, that these fruits and vegetables are coming from California, despite the fact that Florida can grow them all, and do so with less stress on the environment.  Ironically, in the midst of this stunning drought, California is exporting vast quantities of water – in the form of fruits and vegetables. Here in Florida, we can grow a multitude of fruits and vegetables year round, and we still have pretty good water supplies, but we support further drawdown of California’s water table by importing California water in the form of California produce. Needless to say, Floridians are also financially supporting Big Ag’s exploitation of California’s water and other natural resources with every purchase of California produce that we make. We can do better than that as a state and a nation. See our earlier editorial, “We Can Do Better Than California Broccoli.”[4]

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the Ogallala Aquifer continues being over pumped to support industrial agriculture in the midst of a drought, as noted by Bourne (above), and produce grains for livestock, bio-fuels, and some human consumption.  As with California’s fruits and vegetables, the American Midwest is still producing grain at a remarkable clip. In both cases the production is occurring at a considerable (and largely hidden) cost – the depletion of water reserves. But the water has not run out in California or in the Midwest, and so the only pinch we feel is a rhetorical one.

Ask Folks You Know

Ask folks you know if they are aware of the California drought and how it relates to our getting enough (and more than enough) to eat.  Ask them if they are even aware of the rapid depletion of water supplies for the “breadbasket of the world” – you don’t need to use the word Ogallala.  Most will not be aware of what is happening. Why should they?  They have enough and more than enough, and so do we all in America, in the restaurant at the top of the world, where food travels an average of 1500 miles to reach our plates and we can wash down our Chilean Sea Bass with some Sapporo Premium beer in air-conditioned comfort during the hottest year on record.

Hopefully, we’ll resolve our food policy challenges before the end of plenty becomes a reality – and we really feel the pinch.  If we don’t, we may be in for a lot more than a pinch.

Sources: Those Cited and Others For Further Reading

[1] Joel Bourne, “The Global Food Crisis”

[2] Climate Progress, “California’s Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System”

[3] Ecology Florida, “Editorial: Dining and Dreaming at the Top of the World”

[4] Ecology Florida, “Editorial: We Can Do Better Than California Broccoli”

[5] Kirkus, “Kirkus Review: The End of Plenty”

[6] NPR, Fresh Air, “As Global Population Grows, Is The Earth Reaching the End of Plenty?