The Impact of COVID-19 on America’s Farmers and Food Supply
What impact will the coronavirus have on agriculture in the short and long term? And how do we make our food system more resilient? These are pressing questions that still need answers.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw headlines of farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs, euthanizing livestock, and leaving crops to rot in the field. At the time it was chalked up to a simple supply chain breakdown.
But the pandemic has revealed much deeper issues and inequities in our food system.
America’s food supply chain relies on a complex network of farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers. It’s celebrated for efficiently delivering everything we need “just in time” and keeping food prices low.
But this logistical magic comes at the cost of resilience. Food giants have spent years figuring out how to time shipments literally down to the hour to keep inventories low so they can avoid losses. This means when there’s a major disruption—like a global pandemic—things can quickly break down.
In the early days of the pandemic restaurants, schools, and public spaces shut down practically overnight. This meant there was no immediate market for many products. So, farmers trashed perfectly good food while millions went hungry—many for the first time.
Long before the pandemic hit, farmers were already in trouble. For decades the U.S. has allowed food production to become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporate giants. This has steadily wiped out small and mid-size farmers, especially in rural communities.
Add to this severe weather disruptions from climate change and a globalized food system that drives commodity prices down, and smaller farmers can’t keep up.
Last year farm debt reached an extraordinary $430 billion. More than half of farmers in America’s agricultural sector are losing money every year, and suicide rates are three times higher among farmers and ranchers than the general public.
The pandemic made an already bad situation worse, creating hardship for farmers and the millions of migrant farm workers who put food on our tables.
Vulnerable Agricultural Workers
Migrant farm workers and meat packers, whose work is already brutal, have suffered enormously from coronavirus. These workers have been forced to make an impossible decision: Go to work and risk getting COVID or stay home and go without pay.
Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable since they lack basic protections like healthcare, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and unemployment. Worse, they face the constant threat of being rounded up and deported.
Food and agricultural workers often live and work in crowded conditions. In the early days of the pandemic there were reports of agricultural workers being denied basic protections like face coverings and soap and water for handwashing. In one account, a company reportedly charged agricultural workers in California $8 for masks. Workers who dared protest their conditions were reportedly fired or demoted.
Since a significant number of farm workers travel to work in packed buses and live in crowded housing, it’s not surprising they’ve suffered much higher rates of COVID. These conditions literally fuel the spread of the virus.
Forced between going to work sick or losing pay and possibly their jobs, many agricultural works choose the former.
As with most problems in America, food security is within reach if only we could muster the collective political will.
NYU professor and “Food Politics” author Marion Nestle told the Food & Environment Reporting Network last year:
“If the current coronavirus crisis tells us one thing, it’s that people need a steady, reliable, adequate income to survive and that our current food system depends on vast numbers of people who do not have that: farmworkers, grocery store workers, packing plant workers, meatpacking workers, restaurant workers, delivery workers.”
What can we do to make our food system more resilient and equitable?
We could start by ending hunger by expanding food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Better yet, we could end the conditions that cause families and children to go hungry in the first place.
We could mandate better pay, working conditions, and protections like health care, hazard pay, and unemployment benefits for food workers and farm families—regardless of their status.
We could mandate a price freeze on food staples.
We could build resilience into our food systems by relocalizing food production.
We could move away from a centralized supply chain and support a wider range of suppliers.
This way the food system can react and adapt to shocks like natural disasters and pandemics.
We could prioritize who gets food rations in times of crisis.
And we could make sure small and mid-size farms are able to not only survive, but thrive.
In short, we need a food system that is antifragile—not the house of cards we have now. We know how to fix our broken food system. We just need the courage to do it.
Want to hear the latest on food politics?
Then you need to check out DCP’s Politics of Food podcast featuring Cristina Gonzalez. Through in-depth conversations with experts and everyday people, Cristina goes deep into the intentional politicization of food and the economics and community impact of food on a global scale.