Though food is still plentiful, with only temporary and localized shortages, the threat of the COVID 19 crisis to the food supply is considerable. There is no evidence thus far that the disease can be transmitted via food or packaging (though the virus apparently remains viable on plastic for 2 to 4 days). The real danger is that chains of supply will be undermined by both sickness and the pre-cautionary measure we take. Already we are seeing a contraction of food imports from abroad. But the danger extends to even our own local supply.
The safety of shoppers and workers at supermarkets is the first worry that public officials and the general public have expressed. But the food at market comes from somewhere; and that “somewhere” is peopled by a vast array of workers, starting with farmers and farm workers. Will we continue to have the workforce necessary to produce our food, and will they be able to do it in conditions of health and safety for themselves?
We don’t know, but there are troubling concerns. Take fresh produce, for example. Already pressed by acute labor shortages, farms large and small in places like the Central Coast of California have scrambled to provide job security to their workers. But they also depend during crucial harvest periods on temporary labor, and as the border tightened under the Trump administration the H2-A visa system has become important. Florida, Georgia, Washington, and California all depend upon a sizeable workforce from Mexico and the Caribbean under the system. But the virus has meant the closing of consulates in Mexico and elsewhere that process these visas. The labor crunch will come soon for producers of lettuce and strawberries on the Central Coast.
Worse is the specter of widespread infection among farm workers. According to the Los Angeles Times, the United Farm Workers Union doubts how “social distancing” could be carried out by many of these workers, who travel to and from the fields packed in buses or private automobiles. And the same worries apply to the conditions of work, especially in the packing houses and processing facilities, where workers in close quarters clean, sort, and package the fresh produce destined for our markets.
This is also true in the meat packing industry, where just a few huge packing houses process most of the meat that appears on American tables. Most of these institutions are in rural areas where the spread of the virus hasn’t been felt – yet. But packing house workers, like farm workers in the field, are low paid, often stressed financially, and not accustomed to staying home when they are sick, despite the food safety protocols that companies are supposed to impose. There is lots of guidance out there for how employers are supposed to see to worker safety and health turning this crisis, but not a lot of assurance that they can succeed in stopping the spread of the virus once it takes hold among their workers.
The federal government has defined food system businesses as “essential services,” including all the production and support jobs that plant and harvest crops, raise livestock, harvest fish; work in processing, manufacturing, and transport of food; provision of animal feed, fertilizers and pesticides; management of storage facilities; crop and food inspection; and so on. But that has not prevented a contraction in demand, as schools and universities close, restaurants reduce services or shutter their doors, and shoppers focus more and more on essentials.
And this affects local and regional food systems, too. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition projects that local and regional systems could face up to $1.3 billion in economic losses from March through May this year. “Social distancing measures such as the closure of universities, schools, restaurants, and local food markets (e.g., farmers markets, farm stands) will result in significant shifts in where food is sold or acquired, and subsequently, markets for farms and ranches.” Yes, even here in California, some counties and municipalities have closed farmers markets and farm stands, despite the Governor’s recent declaration that these were “essential services” just like grocery stores. The Coalition estimates that local food producers could lose 10 to 25% of their direct market sales in the next two months, and all of their sales to schools and restaurants.
Finally, some suppliers of equipment and inputs for farming are scaling back or shutting down temporarily to protect their workers.
Today, more than ever, we need local food
Locally produced food is becoming more and more important to our communities. The more direct the connection between farmer or rancher and market, the fewer hands and interactions that occur on the way to consumers, the safer we all are. And the fresher the food, the more nourishing and protective of our health.
Farmers markets are already doing a great deal to make shopping safe. A typical set of measures includes:
- Spacing booths to increase social distancing among patrons in line.
- Ensuring that social distancing of six feet per person for non-family members is maintained.
- Limiting the number of customers at any given time to reduce outdoor/indoor crowding and lines to meet social distancing guidlines.
- Encouraging vendors to pre-bag items and serve customers from bulk bins themselves.
- Taking special care in handling money.
- Suspending sampling activities.
- Increasing the frequency of cleaning of tables, payment devices, and other surfaces.
Some farmers are turning to CSAs or online ordering to meet demand. Others are relying more on their own farm stands, where social distancing may be much easier than at a market. Others still are wholesaling to local grocery stores.
None of these measures is proof against a loss of sales, but consumers can support their farmers by finding ways to purchase locally despite the obstacles presented by shut downs.
Unfortunately, we do not have the sort of vibrant local food systems that we really need to ensure an on-going supply of food. In most parts of the country, there are still few farmers focused on the local market. We have lots of gardeners, and we could have more, but all of us who grow food will have to expand what we are doing a great deal to begin to ensure food security.
The situation is even more difficult for high protein foods. Meat and dairy producers are hampered by restrictive laws, meant to ensure safety, that have focused production and distribution on huge operations, without guaranteeing food safety and at the expense of local resilience. Even here in Mendocino County, with ranching a major economic activity, most meat is processed and sold elsewhere; and most meat consumed here comes from outside the area.
Chickens and eggs are produced locally in many parts of the country with few legal restrictions; and more of us could be raising backyard flocks. But for other meat and dairy, consumers should seek out local producers – the dairy shares and herd shares and locally oriented meat producers. Dairy shares are legal in some states, illegal or barely tolerated in others. They make consumers part owners of the herd whose product, fresh, unprocessed milk, is thus theirs. Herd shares do the same for meat consumers but legal restrictions are tight and few operate openly. And in urban areas all these options are hard to find.
We have a long way to go before the resources we need for a truly resilient food system are widely available. But perhaps the difficulties of the day will make all of us more aware and appreciative of the importance of creating the bases for real food security.
Resources for farmers and consumers
Many parts of the country have local food guides to lead consumers to farms and ranches that serve their area. For Mendocino County, check out the Local Food Guide: https://www.mendofoodguide.org/
Here’s a list of regenerative farms and ranches in Northern California, some of whom market online: https://jeffersonhub.com/regenerative-farms-and-ranches-in-california/.
Community Alliance for Family Farmers has multiple resources and links to guidelines for dealing with issues surrounding Farmers Markets, CSA’s, U-Pick operations, cleaning and handling, etc.: https://www.caff.org/covid19/
Grants for direct market farmers are available from American Farmland Trust: https://farmland.org/farmer-relief-fund/
The just passed federal stimulus package for the first time makes the self-employed eligible for unemployment benefits. Let’s hope our farmers are not unemployed, but any who find themselves in this position should apply.
And the Small Business Administration is administering grants and loans for small businesses, including farms and ranches, that face losses or an inability to employee workers due to the crisis.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) also has a blog post up about agriculture provisions in the CARES ACT: https://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/closer-look-farmer-relief-senate-pandemic-package/
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition paper on impact of the crisis and farmer and policy responses referred to above can be found at: https://localfoodeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020_03_18-EconomicImpactLocalFood.pdf.
For the impact on grocery store workers: https://medium.com/the-atlantic/grocery-stores-are-the-coronavirus-tipping-point-443178122d24
The LA Times article on the impacts of the crisis on the food supply, with emphasis on farm workers is available at: https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-03-18/coronavirus-agriculture-food-supply-visa.