Sustainable food during COVID-19: More than ecology

If you have tuned into any news sources during the world of COVID-19, you may have seen two juxtaposing headlines: food demand is at one of the highest points it has ever been as millions are out of work, and at the same time farmers are dumping food they cannot sell? As reported by CNN, the demand at food banks has gone up by an astounding 40 percent since March, when unemployment rates due to stay-at-home orders, employment furloughs and layoffs related to the virus began to skyrocket. And yet, farmers are dumping milk and smashing eggs because their market has significantly reduced. The Chicago Tribune cites that in Florida, “tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, plowing perfectly ripe vegetables back into the soil,” leaving us with a vivid picture of the scene in contrast with the long lines of cars around the country filled with people desperate for any food they can get. 

What does this reveal about our food system? A “sustainable” food system does not just use ecological soundness, but also ensures everyone has equal access to healthy food. This isn’t the first time America has fallen short, but the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly highlighted some faults in our food system. Consider the route of one of the vegetables currently being ground back into the soil in Florida. A head of lettuce is picked and stored in refrigerated containers as it gets trucked to a distribution center, which may be hours from where it was grown. The lettuce awaits a retailer (Hannaford, Market Basket, etc.) to pick it up and then undergoes yet another trip to the grocery store. Meat production has even more steps. Aside from the chemicals needed to store the produce and emissions involved in its travel, the number of steps in the process is cumbersome. Anytime, but especially now, each of these steps represents a potential barrier. A distribution center or retailer could be down employees, and health precautions could make the process longer than it already is. On the consumer side, many people are afraid to enter the stores, and others are lacking financial means. 

Meat production, specifically chicken production, often follows a contract farming model in which big chicken producers like Tyson hire small-scale farmers to raise their chickens. There are environmental concerns with the meat industry, but let’s just look at it functionally: smaller farmers work for big meat suppliers because it provides them with a “definite market.” That is, even if their local community is not buying, they still have the income from the big supplier. Now, with more and more big meat plants like Smithfield Foods in South Dakota being shut down due to workers getting sick from COVID-19, the contract farmers are suddenly losing that market they relied on. Thus, the supply chain is broken.

Furthermore, many farms, both small and large, supply to schools and restaurants. With most schools closed and restaurants either closed or having much less business, farms have lost big markets. As opposed to small-scale farming where the amount of produce and livestock grown can be fairly easily reduced according to demand from year to year, large scale farms have to acquire resources so far ahead that when a sudden disaster like COVID-19 hits and markets are lost, they end up with excess. The American Farm Bureau, Feeding America and countless individual groups have stepped in to connect these farms with the food banks and homeless shelters in need, but typically there are not strong links between food banks and the large-scale farms. One small silver lining of the pandemic may be establishing relationships between farms and food banks that will extend into a future without COVID-19.

It’s not news that eating less meat and buying more locally sourced products are important choices in improving sustainability. Oftentimes, especially on campus, it may seem as though some people take every chance they get to tell you to “stop eating that burger” or “go to the farmers market.” Even though I am likely one of those people, I’m sure it can get annoying. Regardless of your perspective on the much-used word “sustainability” and ecological principles, we can probably all agree that farmers destroying perfectly good food should not be happening at the same time that more people than ever are going hungry in America. The faults in the industrial food system are not just environmental ones, but problems that restrict its entire purpose: feeding Americans. 

Julia Peabody-Harhigh ’23 is from Concord, N.H.