Three Ways the Coronavirus Crisis Is Also a Food Crisis

March 27, 2020 | 4:44 pm
Duncan C/Flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

“The destiny of nations depends on how they feed themselves.” In a recent New York Times op-ed calling for a bold new federal emergency food program, noted chef and humanitarian José Andrés quoted these words from the 18th-century French culinary thinker Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

As the coronavirus crisis keeps most Americans at home, many of us have pantries comfortably stocked with food (from canned soup and dried beans to less austere items) and the ability to have groceries delivered to our doorsteps in a matter of hours. But millions of our neighbors have trouble putting food on the table in the best of times, and they’re now joined by many more people abruptly facing job loss and hunger. Meanwhile, many of the people who produce and safeguard our food supply are confronted with increased health risk and economic catastrophe.

The coronavirus is exacerbating food insecurity

Even before the virus, an unconscionable number of people in the United States struggled with hunger. In 2018, 14.3 million American households were food insecure (meaning they have limited or uncertain access to enough food), with more than 11 million children living in such households. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) served some 38 million participants across the United States last year—12 percent of the population.

Those numbers are expected to balloon as a result of the coronavirus and its economic fallout. The $2 trillion emergency aid package just passed by Congress contains some help for people newly facing hunger due to job loss or income reduction. It includes $15.5 billion in additional money to cover new SNAP applications and costs expected due to the crisis, $100 million for Native American populations on reservations, $200 million for US territories, and another $9 billion for child nutrition programs. However, the Senate blocked a House provision that would have raised households’ SNAP benefits by 15 percent, a fight that is likely to reemerge in a future aid bill.

Many people already need help putting food on the table, and with the crisis, they’ve been turning to local food banks and pantries in larger numbers. From California to Ohio, they’re feeling the strain, and not just because of increased demand. The urgent need for social distancing has the unfortunate consequence that volunteers who usually sort, pack, and hand out boxes at food banks and pantries are staying away. Food banks and other community food distribution programs got a $450 million bump in funding in the bill, but their volunteers probably won’t be back for a while.

Isolation is jeopardizing key food businesses and industries

If you’re heeding the best public health advice for social distancing, including staying in and having meals at home, you are absolutely doing the right thing for your own health and that of your community (this nifty GIF helps show why). But that doesn’t make the pain being felt by restaurant owners and workers any less. Between voluntary #StayHome pledges and local and state orders for non-essential businesses to close, restaurants across the country have already lost an enormous amount of business. And it’s only going to get worse. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio predicts that the crisis could put a staggering 75 percent of US restaurants out of business.

Colicchio and five other NYC-based chefs penned an op-ed this week asking if we’ll have “an America without restaurants” when the crisis is over. And for policymakers who don’t think that matters, they offer this reminder: independent restaurants employ more than 10 million people nationwide.

And then there are the farmers, particularly the small local growers who sell direct to consumers and to now-shuttered restaurants and schools. As my colleague Sarah Reinhardt wrote last week, they stand to lose nearly $700 million in sales just over the next three months, with ripple effects for their employees and local economies. So while this week’s aid package includes $9.5 billion for farmers and ranchers, questions remain about how much will flow to those small local farms, and if it will be enough.

The pandemic is creating gaps in food safety inspection

At a time when food system workers from grocery clerks to farm workers are risking infection to go to work and ensure a steady food supply, it’s worth remembering that government food safety inspectors are on the front line as well. And that there are new holes in that front line.

On March 18, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) halted all routine surveillance inspections of facilities that manufacture food and other FDA-regulated products. The FDA is responsible for inspecting 77 percent of the nation’s food, including fresh produce, packaged foods, and eggs in the shell. (The US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, inspects meat, poultry, and fluid egg products.) Previously, travel restrictions had ended FDA inspections abroad. Some state food safety inspections have also been suspended.

And while the FDA and USDA have issued statements assuring the public that its food supply is safe—and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t—the cracks in the inspection system as a result of the coronavirus are worrying.

For eaters and food producers, the next stimulus bill must do more

As indicated above, the latest Congressional stimulus bill has taken some important first steps to keep food on people’s table and pull farmers and food businesses from the edge of a cliff. For more on how this week’s federal aid package will help food businesses, workers, and eaters, Forbes has this helpful rundown.

Anti-hunger advocates, farmers, the National Restaurant Association, and a new coalition of independent restaurant owners are also advocating for further government action. Restaurant owners are calling on consumers to help as well, with efforts like the Great American Takeout earlier this week.

It’s highly likely that Congress will need to take further action to rescue our economy as the coronavirus crisis continues, and in its wake. The next aid package should bring tangible economic relief to people who are hurting most—increasing household SNAP benefits and shoring up small and independent businesses, from farms to restaurants—while simultaneously making smart investments to build a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food system for the future.