Before the current pandemic, few Americans put much thought into our food system. The more privileged among us could find anything we wanted at the grocery store and could comfortably afford to feed our families. Some of us ate out multiple times each week and could choose among many different cuisines and eateries. We didn’t need to think about what went into growing our food, how the supply chains that delivered our meats and vegetables functioned, or the economic and safety realities of those who harvested, delivered, and prepared our meals.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has laid bare vulnerabilities that have long plagued our food system. We now see the downside of a nationalized supply system in which farmers, unable to deliver their crops directly to local markets, are forced to plow needed produce back into the ground. We now see the serious problem with the nation’s meat supply chain relying heavily on just a handful of processing facilities, as Covid-19 has spiked among their workers.
Crucially, we now see more clearly how the food system was already failing many from less privileged backgrounds—including those working low-paying jobs, households without access to a grocery store, and communities of color who, due to systemic inequality, are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Even before the pandemic, 40 million Americans weren’t sure where their next meal would come from. Many others worked hard jobs in the food chain, on wages that barely brought them to the poverty line. Not only were these people unrecognized for their importance to our lives, they were often invisible.
We all see them now. Food and supply shortages, safety failures, and insufficient protections for essential workers have given us a giant wake up call. Government and private philanthropic funds are desperately trying to hold together a fundamentally broken food system.
Repairing the inadequate and inequitable food system we had before Covid-19 struck is the wrong approach. Instead, we should seek to create a crisis-proof system we can all rely on and be proud of. With a few policy adjustments, federal and state governments can help build a vastly improved system that provides nutritious, sustainably grown, equitably produced food for all, even as it compensates and protects food workers and better supports local farms, restaurants, and other small businesses.
At the core of such a system would be a clearer focus on equitable access and development of stronger local and regional food supply chains. Thankfully, we don’t need to study and innovate to begin building this better system. The research and design work has already been done. We just need to get moving.
Here’s what we need to do:
Feed all people well. The main function of the food system is to sustain all people in all American communities by supplying affordable food that keeps us healthy and well fed. Long term, we need to reduce reliance on food assistance programs by increasing incomes. We also need to improve nutrition by ensuring that every neighborhood has access to grocery stores that stock healthy options at affordable prices—in part to reduce conditions like heart disease and diabetes that have made Covid-19 more lethal.
Until that vision is a reality, we need effective programs that support those who were already going hungry and those who were made food insecure by the pandemic. Congress should boost food assistance and make permanent the recent waivers that have been granted to make both SNAP and school meals programs even more effective. The pandemic pushed legislators to expand food assistance benefits for families with children eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. That expansion should be made available for future pandemics and expanded to summer months when children are out of school.
Prioritize regional supply chains. The closer farms are to forks, the fewer disruptions during times of crisis. At the heart of the current food system’s vulnerabilities is a misguided federal agriculture policy that incentivizes one national supply chain for most of what we eat. We see this point clearly when the closing of a single meat processing plant threatens to bring down an entire industry. Regional supply chains with smaller growers and producers have myriad benefits: they are more economically resilient, they encourage food business to stay closer to the customer, they are boons for local economies, they reduce the large environmental costs of food production, and, in a crisis, they give us more options to get food where it is needed.
A few immediate actions would help. Right now, local, family-owned ranches have to run their livestock through a few large USDA slaughterhouses spread across the country, sometimes shipping animals three states for slaughter only to ship the meat back to be sold. If Congress passed legislation to let small protein producers sell locally, we’d quickly see fewer reports of shortages. Meanwhile, the USDA should do more to support regional supply chains and make direct-to-customer markets accessible to all communities.
Recognize and support the role of small businesses and workers in the food system. We need to unrig the system that currently disadvantages smaller local and regional food businesses, including the restaurants at the heart of our communities. Across sectors, the scramble for access to federal stimulus dollars has pitted small business owners against massive corporations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the food sector, where large food companies have gamed the system to secure funding while small independent chefs and restaurant owners are left to pick up the scraps.
Small food businesses are the heart of any community. Any future federal funding program should recognize the economic impact of small food businesses and close loopholes that enable larger investor-backed businesses to eat into their share. The next Farm Bill should also aim to level agriculture’s playing field by supporting small, family-owned farms rather than subsidizing global food conglomerates.
Just as importantly, we need to take steps now to protect the people who grow and process our foods, from those who pick fruit to those who butcher meat or wash dishes. Today, many of these people can’t afford to buy the foods they produce for the rest of us and don’t have the health care protections they need to keep themselves and the rest of us safe. Our food system can’t function without them, and we can no longer treat them as invisible.
This crisis has shown us that strengthening our food system is a matter of national security. Reducing supply chain vulnerabilities and ensuring that the system better serves all our communities can literally save American lives, both during this crisis and after.
If Congress and the administration make these policy changes, and better coordinate the policies already in place, we will go a long way toward ensuring that our food supply is never seriously threatened again—not during a pandemic and not during the next crisis, whatever it is.
Source: Thanks https://www.politico.com/news/agenda/2020/05/13/how-to-crisis-proof-our-food-system-254798