As COVID-19 Reveals Our Food System’s Flaws, Congress Can Boost Protection Now—and Resilience for the Future

April 22, 2020 | 5:57 pm
Jim Horn/Flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

If we didn’t know it before—or had forgotten—the escalating pandemic and its widening economic ripple effects are hammering home the reality that our world is full of risk and uncertainty. Preparedness is paramount. Resilience is essential. And apart from the nation’s healthcare system, nowhere is this more apparent right now than when it comes to keeping ourselves fed, as food producers, workers, and consumers alike face mounting threats to their health and well-being.

Because the system wasn’t designed to protect them.

Millions teeter on the brink of hunger

Our food system produces vast quantities of food. Before the novel coronavirus arrived on the scene, we had surpluses and shameful levels of waste (and we still do). Yet one in nine households were still experiencing food insecurity at some point during the year—including many who work low-paying jobs in the food industry—and now, millions more may join the ranks of the hungry. In just the past four weeks, some 22 million workers have lost their jobs, with hospitality and service employees (and not coincidentally, women) taking the brunt of the job losses.

The two bills previously passed by Congress (and signed, after much stalling and dysfunction, by President Trump) will help with stimulus checks and increased funding for food assistance. But many households that have suddenly seen their incomes slashed are still checking their bank accounts and mailboxes for relief checks, with distribution snafus and an eyebrow-raising presidential autograph dragging out the wait. And in addition to leaving out many immigrants, the relief program may not apply to US citizens married to immigrants.

So in recent weeks it has fallen far too often to charitable organizations to put food on plates. Recent levels of demand at food banks—illustrated by unforgettable images and video on social media—have been staggering. In San Antonio and elsewhere, food banks simply can’t meet the demand. That so many families wonder where their next meal is coming from even in “normal” times, and that so many more join them after a single missed paycheck or two, should tell us that something is very wrong.

Food and farm workers are at risk

A ProPublica investigative report in late March asked the question, what if workers cutting up the nation’s meat get sick? By mid-April it was already happening. One union representing poultry workers issued a press release slamming Tyson and other “Big Chicken” companies for their slow COVID-19 response and the deaths of workers. Workers in Chicago and Virginia have gone on strike to call attention to the conditions they have been working under, which are even more dangerous than usual.

And then more ominous developments: Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, indefinitely shuttered a large facility in South Dakota. The plant, which normally processes 5 percent of the nation’s hogs and employs 3,700 workers, had become a major hotspot of COVID-19 cases, responsible for nearly four in 10 of the entire state’s cases. Similar shutdowns have occurred at meatpacking plants in Iowa and in Colorado.

Workers in such plants, who are often immigrants, are clearly highly susceptible to the virus, and one can see why: they toil shoulder-to-shoulder on fast-moving processing lines, constantly at risk of injury and under crushing mental and physical stress—and now, often with insufficient personal protective equipment against infection by the novel coronavirus. Government-employed food safety inspectors are similarly at risk of injury and infection in those plants, and shortages of workers and inspectors add to the problem. Yet the US Department of Agriculture under Secretary Sonny Perdue hasn’t let up efforts to deregulate the meat and poultry processing industries, even though such efforts fly in the face of science, common sense, and human decency.

Grocery store workers are also on the front lines. In recent weeks, dozens have died of COVID-19 and thousands more have fallen ill. Some have described having to purchase their own gloves and masks to keep themselves safe at work—this despite cashiers being among the nation’s lowest-paid workers. Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods Market employees have staged strikes, which in some cases have forced employers to roll out better worker protections. When a store in my neighborhood closed temporarily recently (after an employee tested positive for the virus), non-union Trader Joe’s said it would pay staff for shifts they missed, and some grocery workers are getting hazard pay during this crisis.

Still, for the most part, grocery workers have been under immense pressure to go to work even when sick and/or to risk infection from others by working. This is not merely due to heavy consumer demand for groceries, but also a lack of paid sick leave for these workers (especially at large chains exempt from recent legislation). By helping to keep all of us fed, grocery workers are essential. But rather than calling them heroes, we should ensure that they are protected.

And farmworkers—mostly immigrants, often undocumented and working in the shadows for shamefully low pay—are also at risk. They are excluded from many of the benefits offered in relief programs during this pandemic. Moreover, proper social distancing is not an option for them, as they work shoulder-to-shoulder in the fields, perhaps transported there on packed buses from overcrowded living quarters. They rarely have sufficient equipment to protect them from the sun and the chemicals they work with, much less this virus. Farmworker unions filed suit last week in Washington state, demanding enforceable safety rules to protect these workers.

The fact is, farmworkers were unsafe and food workers of all kinds exploited and undervalued all along. The pandemic has simply made a longstanding systemic problem a whole lot worse.

Shutdowns have turned food supply chains upside down

The slowly unfolding crisis has highlighted the reality that everything is connected in the food system: the fate of the eating public is tied to that of food producers, workers, and related businesses. Early on, supply chains imploded as restaurants, caterers, and schools shut down, meaning tens of millions of school meals no longer eaten at school and countless meals no longer served at restaurants and events. At the same time, we all stocked up at the supermarket and started cooking a lot more at home. And because different companies sell food into commercial, institutional, and retail markets (just as with toilet paper), many areas have seen empty grocery shelves even as shuttered restaurants and hotels are awash in products.

Stories abound of farmers dumping perfectly good fresh food—milk, ripe tomatoes, even a reported 1 million pounds of onions on a single Idaho farm—for lack of places to store it and markets to buy it. United Fresh, the US produce industry association, has estimated the sudden changes in consumer behavior have affected 40 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in this country and resulted in $5 billion in losses to produce growers, shippers, and wholesalers just in the month of March. In a press release calling for federal help earlier this month, the association warned: “Looking forward, the industry is experiencing as much as $1 billion a week in lost sales that simply cannot be converted fully to a changing retail market. The impact of these losses has led to thousands of jobs lost, and the immediate potential of bankruptcies that will disrupt the produce supply chain for years to come.”

The effects of coronavirus hotspots in the food supply chain are also rippling out. As infected meatpacking plants have shut down—leaving fewer buyers and processors for livestock—the prices farmers can get for their animals are likely to decline further from current lows. And of course there are impacts on consumers too: Smithfield’s CEO has warned that the industry may not be able to keep the nation’s grocery stores stocked with meat—a statement that could lead to more panic buying and further strain on food banks (see above) in the weeks ahead. That the closure of a handful of meatpacking plants threatens to upend the nation’s food supply speaks to the system’s inherent fragility.

Meanwhile, in recent years, many small and midsize farmers have carved out markets selling direct to consumers, for example at local farmers markets. But while such markets were authorized to accept food assistance benefits in-person, and many did, they aren’t able to do so online, which may contribute to significant losses for these farmers during the current crisis.

Federal response must deliver greater protection now…

While we are in the middle of this emergency, the first priority for government action should be keeping people fed, workers safe, and small farms and food businesses from going under. A recent letter to congressional leaders signed by more than two dozen organizations outlined a number of immediate needs:

  • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should require employers to offer adequate protections for front-line food-chain workers, including farmworkers, grocery workers, and school food service workers.
  • Congress should expand the time that workers are eligible for unemployment benefits (regardless of immigration status) and provide “pandemic premium pay” and first-responder designation to all food and farm workers.
  • Food assistance benefits under the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be raised so that all households—including those already receiving maximum monthly benefits—get the support they need.

In further recommendations to Congress last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) detailed such changes and more, including better support for school food programs and additional research investments to enable the USDA to help respond to the crisis.

…but also increased resilience for the future

Sooner rather than later, we also need government action that takes lessons from the current food system crisis and seeks to prevent the next one. For decades, policies and practices have shaped the US farm and food system to emphasize productivity and efficiency above all else. But this misplaced emphasis has left us vulnerable to a whole host of shocks. In just the last year or two, these have included extreme weather—like last spring’s devastating Midwest flooding, perhaps about to be repeated. And trade wars, remember those?

About a million years ago, before the pandemic, my team here at UCS was focused on agricultural practices and farm policies that would address such shocks by shifting our system to become more localized, more diversified, less consolidated, more resilient. We thought we knew all the reasons we needed that: Because floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, we need spongier soil. Because global trade relationships are volatile, we need more diversity of farm products. Because the nation’s income inequality has grown so vast—in turn driving health inequities—we need to create food economies that can deliver healthy food access to all.

Then, on top of all that, came COVID-19. And what the pandemic is showing us, if we care to look, is that the food system we have created for ourselves, shaped by a web of public policies, is a house of cards. What it lacks, and what it needs, is resilience. As a country, we need to look hard at how the virus has affected the food supply and the people responsible for it, and may continue to do so in the months ahead. (It’s worth noting that while the worst of the pandemic’s direct health effects haven’t fully hit many farming communities yet, that too is coming.)

So will we act to make our food system more resilient to all kinds of crises? We must, because we can’t live without farms and the food they provide, or the distribution systems that bring that food to our plates. Now that we have seen new ways that the food system can be thrown into chaos, and many of its participants put at risk, we’d do well to be better prepared for the next crisis. UCS is developing recommendations for federal action.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: In the meantime, Congress is finalizing the latest COVID-19 relief legislation this week, but it doesn’t include new provisions to protect food system workers or to address growing food insecurity. Tell them hard-hit families and food system workers can’t wait much longer. They need help now. Use our action center to send an email to your elected representatives today.