The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t just been a health crisis, it has also been a food crisis. It has exposed serious vulnerabilities in the U.S. food system that many Americans didn’t realize were lurking until they encountered empty grocery store shelves in the spring of last year.
Starting when the virus first began to spread, supply chain bottlenecks have caused breakdowns that are still ongoing in all parts of the U.S. food system, from farm fields to processing centers to grocery stores. Farmers, facing the sudden loss of places to deliver fruit, vegetables, livestock and grains, were forced to plow under millions of pounds of crops, slaughter herds or pour milk down the drain.
There were several causes. Coronavirus outbreaks that spread rapidly among farmworkers and meatpacking plant employees, already vulnerable populations with often limited access to health care, meant crops couldn’t be harvested and meat couldn’t be processed. With meatpacking a highly concentrated industry, the closures of even just a few processing facilities suddenly left ranchers across the country with nowhere to send their livestock to slaughter. Food banks struggled to keep up with record demand as unemployed and furloughed workers grappled with the sudden loss of a paycheck.
The food and farming community is sounding the alarm that the country could see similar collapses in other future crises, just not pandemics. With climate change accelerating, extreme weather events becoming more common and cyberattacks growing more prevalent, the agriculture industry is on notice that more disruptions aren’t just a likelihood, they are a certainty.
“The reality check was there can be a disruption to that system, and everybody felt it,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig.
For decades, the American food system has prioritized efficiency, creating economies of scale across the country that have made food plentiful, safe and inexpensive. But that efficient system was also highly concentrated and not very flexible when something went wrong.
“One of the things going forward is how to continue to prioritize that affordable, safe food, but do it in some different ways that bring some additional flexibilities into our food supply chain,” said Oregon Director of Agriculture Alexis Taylor.
In essence, state officials, farmers and ranchers, food companies and food banks are all looking for ways to make our food system more crisis-proof. So POLITICO decided to convene a “policy hackathon” — an hour-long Zoom session — in which we asked some of the savviest agriculture leaders from around the country to compare notes, identify emerging challenges and share the best ideas for making the food system more resilient.
Our 11 policy hackers — who came from states as diverse as Florida and Washington, Iowa and Arizona — said they have already learned critical lessons about what works to protect our food supply. Over the course of the discussion, they shared common problems, such as what happened when Covid-19 spread rapidly among farmworkers and meatpackers, and found many areas of agreement, such as the need for farmers to have access to multiple markets to sell their harvests. And they identified some areas where the federal government could step in with support, in terms of financing and strategy.
Here are the key takeaways from their conversation.
PART 1: WHY THE FOOD SYSTEM FELL APART
Our experts told us that similar breakdowns in the food supply chain took place across the country, forcing all parts of the sector to grapple with the same problems. It started in the South, when the pandemic hit right as harvest season was ramping up and crops like lettuce, tomatoes and fruit ripened for picking, and spread from there.
Too little flexibility between retail and wholesale
As restaurants were forced to shut their doors as a health safety precaution, producers had to deal with separate distribution channels between retail and food service; farmers don’t typically have the flexibility to quickly switch between them. For example, when a producers’ contract with a restaurant couldn’t be fulfilled, it was difficult for that grower to then turn to sell produce to a retail establishment instead.
For instance, Taylor, the Oregon agriculture director, said potato growers in her state only had equipment to package potatoes in 20-pound sacks, not in the smaller bags more common in grocery stores. What’s more, many of those potatoes had been grown to be made into French fries, so they lacked the uniform shape and appearance that retail shoppers expect.
“Shifting from wholesale to retail was particularly problematic,” said Sarah Blacklin, director of N.C. Choices at North Carolina Cooperative Extension. “The fragility of our efficient commodity supply chains needs to be addressed.”
Yet experiences from farm to farm were not universal. Distribution challenges were often different for large-scale producers because bigger operations are better resourced and tend to get more state and federal support, making it easier for them to adapt to crises. Young and beginning farmers — who often manage smaller operations — enter the industry aware of its vulnerabilities, said Martin Lemos, co-director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“Many young producers were aware and had developed business models that were resilient and prepared for this, but the cost of pivoting was very difficult, and we didn’t see that level of [federal] support for young producers until much later in the year,” he said.
Too few distribution channels
Meatpacking plants in the Midwest and South — the vast majority of which are owned by just a handful of large agriculture companies — had to temporarily cease operations when the virus infected huge swaths of employees. That consolidation meant that there was no alternative backup system when a major plant shut down that served an entire region of producers.
Farmers were forced to euthanize animals to deal with the huge backlog of livestock ready for processing. The pork industry was arguably hit the hardest.
“We were unclear on the right way to do mitigation in plants,” said David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board. “You couldn’t find PPE materials, and you had to get them installed, and all of that does take some time in order to do it right.”
In Iowa, during the peak of the pandemic last spring, roughly half of the state’s pork processing was down during a several-week period, said Naig from Iowa. On top of the pandemic, Iowa was also dealing with a destructive windstorm that damaged millions of acres of crops and historic levels of drought.
Workers are vulnerable to emergencies
The frequently overlooked harsh conditions that many workers in fields, processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores operate in made them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Many of the places that grow the nation’s fruits and vegetables have seen disproportionately high rates of coronavirus cases. And when those workers started falling sick, what had been a perennial labor shortage pre-pandemic became a full-blown labor crisis.
Workplace safety advocates were furious that the Department of Labor in the Trump administration declined to make safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandatory. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an arm of the Labor Department, argued that the government already had requirements in place that broadly ensure workplaces are safe.
“A lot of what I’ve heard from the workers is that in times of emergency, our health and safety is deprioritized and Big Ag and preserving the status quo is prioritized,” said Xaxira Velasco Ponce de León, an attorney at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, Washington.
At the same time, the industry is dealing with a major shortage of workers in all sectors — from produce to dairy.
“Labor continues to be a problem, as it did during the pandemic,” said Mark Killian, Arizona director of agriculture. “We’re one or two days from another huge problem, and I don’t have a solution for that other than trying to get people back to work.”
Food banks were overwhelmed
Food insecurity skyrocketed during the pandemic as a record number of Americans were out of work and flocked to food banks, waiting hours in miles-long lines. People already living in food deserts faced an even more difficult time accessing nutritious food.
Shortened grocery store hours as well as more limited public transportation routes made it harder for low-income families to purchase food. At the same time, food banks were dealing with a huge influx of perishable foods like cheese and milk that they were unprepared to store, process and distribute.
“Our biggest challenge continues to be food insecurity,” Killian said. “We have places in Arizona, like the reservations in one of our counties, [which] is one of the worst counties for food insecurity. How do you get the grocery store chains to take a capital risk and build grocery stores in those areas? That’s a real challenge, but it needs to be done, and it might be something that the federal government may need to underwrite.”
PART 2: HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE NEXT CRISIS
Of course, the pandemic is not over, and Covid-19 continues to squeeze the food system. Labor shortages remain an issue as employers struggle to find enough healthy workers to keep the system humming. But as farmers eye new disasters, as hurricanes pound the South and Northeast and wildfires burn in the West, it’s clear that Covid will be far from the last shock our food system will need to endure.
Here are six ideas our policy hackers proposed for making the food system more resilient to calamities.
1. Put farmers directly in touch with consumers.
When a farmer or a rancher’s usual distributor shuts down, there needs to be alternate ways for them to market their produce or meat. Our policy hackers said that state and local officials need to work to build and expand such alternate supply chains, most of which would put producers directly in touch with consumers and other end users.
“The bottom line is we saw where the vulnerable points of the system are, both in the production and access and diversification,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner. “Shortening the chain and making sure that we are connecting both ends of the supply chain, the eaters and the producers as closely as possible with as many diverse supply chain or infrastructure, as we can.”
Helping producers get in closer contact can mean encouraging them to expand their brands by setting up websites, an important business tool that’s out of reach for people living in rural areas without access to reliable broadband. The federal government, which has been more active in dispersing grants to improve broadband connectivity in recent years, still needs to step up its efforts to extend internet connections to every household in rural America, the hackers said.
Another way to directly connect producers with consumers is to ensure that farmers markets safely stay open during a crisis, said Karen Ross, California’s agriculture commissioner. “It is essential for so many people, especially in our urban neighborhoods, to be able to keep those open.”
Federal and state governments should steer more money toward supporting local food initiatives, like Community Supported Agriculture and other direct-to-consumer sales, panelists agreed.
2. Build flexible packaging capacity.
To make it easier for producers to switch between the retail and wholesale markets, commercial distributors should create multiple production lines where producers can have their perishable goods processed and packaged for alternative users on the fly.
For example, a salad company needs to be able to transition from retail packaging to packaging suitable for school meals. Additionally, packaging materials like pallets should be stockpiled so that businesses can move between those two supply channels.
“We didn’t have bag lettuce for salads 20 years ago, and now there’s every kind of bag combination you can imagine, but it takes different production lines to be able to do that,” Ross said. “So that’s where the system needs to be re-examined.”
3. Stockpile personal protective equipment.
One way to protect agricultural workers and ensure labor remains available during a crisis would be to stockpile masks, gloves and other protective equipment that might be needed in times of emergency. The pandemic showed us that it’s not just health and law enforcement who are needed to help weather crises, but farm, food and grocery workers are also “essential.” Employers and local officials should make sure they are protected so they can stay on the job safely.
Ross said that’s a lesson she learned in California, which secured large quantities of PPE and utilized county agriculture commissioners’ offices to distribute more than 22 million masks, tens of millions of gloves and sanitizer. The state is now using the same system to distribute N95 masks during the current wildfire season.
4. Focus on high-priority crops.
During emergencies that strain the labor supply, state and local officials should focus labor on high-priority food so that fewer workers are exposed to dangerous elements. In a crisis, specialty crops that are labor-intensive might have to take the back seat.
“We can’t carry on with business as usual in times of an emergency, we have to be comfortable with scaling back and prioritize the food that is most necessary,” said Ponce De León. “These are businesses, but we have to understand that at the root of this these are human beings, and if you lose your workforce, you lose your whole supply chain.”
Longer-term solutions offered by participants include comprehensive immigration reform so that a path to legalization exists for farmworkers, as well as expanded training and educational opportunities for all kinds of food and agriculture workers.
5. Boost alternative meat processors.
Arguably the most concentrated part of the food supply chain is meatpacking, where just four companies control a majority of slaughterhouses and packaging facilities. Several policy hackers suggested that one way to make meat processing less vulnerable to shocks is for local officials to support existing smaller companies and promote the establishment of additional meat processing facilities.
“A lot of our small-scale processors, they can’t and they should not compete against larger packers, and so the option is really to differentiate,” Blacklin said. That can be achieved by offering federal infrastructure and local marketing grants to meat companies who need to expand capacity and enter new markets, she said.
6. Strengthen the food bank network.
Food banks provide an important alternate and flexible distribution network during emergencies; they can accept surplus food from producers and others and distribute it to the people most in need.
One thing that would help food banks is packaging space and equipment to be able to distribute fresh produce more easily. Helping food banks take in more perishable foods would also tackle the massive food waste problem caused by excess produce with no markets to sell to.
“We had one grower that had nine truckloads of strawberries get canceled from one of the retailers, a million dollars,’’ said Mike Joyner, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. “So he sent nine truckloads to a food bank, and at that last load, a food bank said we’re at capacity, we can’t take any more. And that’s why you saw our folks plowing so much under because they maxed out at the food banks.’’
Food banks also need to improve their reach in food deserts — neighborhoods with few grocery stores where residents have a hard time accessing healthy food even without a crisis.
Because of the pandemic, “We’ve been able to … start to think more strategically about how we use an equity lens to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbors have access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food,” said Ruth Jones Nichols, president of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore.
The Covid-19 pandemic taught the country important lessons about how our food gets to our tables, including that the whole process is more fragile than many had appreciated.
Whatever solutions put in place must recognize that a resilient food system is one that values more than just maximum efficiency, the panelists agreed.
“Yes, efficiency gets us food on the shelves regularly and we can expect it,” Greenberg said. “But the vulnerabilities inherent in a perfectly efficient system are not going to meet the demands of the future.”