COVID-19’s Impact on Food Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in major disruptions across America’s food supply chains, revealing weaknesses in our food system. Farmers, businesses, and government agencies such as the USDA are working hard to efficiently redistribute food and reduce waste.

The foodservice industry and retail sectors are the two largest purchasers of food produced in America. Due to restaurant closures, the foodservice industry’s needs abruptly halted while demand in grocery stores increased dramatically. The beef industry particularly is affected by this market shift. Demand for beef in grocery stores increased by 92% in March, but the reduced demand from restaurants has put the industry at a net loss. An estimated $13 billion dollars of losses are expected through 2021. Cow’s milk has had a similar fate. Schools make up the majority of the milk demand, but with students out of school, market opportunities have plummeted. The result? Farmers are forced to dump their milk supply, smash their eggs, and plow under perfectly nutritious fields of vegetables. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for change and opportunity to rethink the design of our food system.

Now we have a chance to reimagine the way our food system operates. The following three alterations could improve the long-term sustainability of our food system:

1. Prioritize diverse and balanced diets throughout the supply chain. Currently, the majority of farmlands are monoculture crops of wheat, soy, and corn—which are low-nutrient staples. Prioritizing more nutrient-dense produce diversifies the food supply and in turn improves consumer’s health.

2. Place greater emphasis on environmental impact in food production and policy. Valuing the effects of our food system on the environment could help to prevent disease spread, decrease water usage, and protect land from natural events.

3. Empower farmers to adapt to meet local needs. National food policies shape the population’s nutrition as a whole, yet nutritional needs of local communities differ. Community members—including consumers, scientists, local policy makers, businesses, health workers, and nonprofit organizations—should be given the opportunity to influence their food system to fit their unique environment or circumstances.

For example, in several farms in Oklahoma, monoculture crop farmers have started combining vegetable seeds into their standard cover crop mixes, creating what one farmer calls “chaos gardens.” The result has been a plot of land that takes little tending yet produces a harvest that can feed the local community and fight food insecurity. Not only does this small change have a positive local impact, but it also has environmental benefits such as a decrease in pesticide, herbicide, and water usage. There are 200 million acres of corn, soy, and wheat farmlands in the United States, and if just 1% of these farmlands used this cover crop practice, there would be a total of 2 million acres of chaos gardens. The result would be a 50% increase in produce production.

The following are ways RDs can help reimagine farming in the post–COVID-19 world.

1. Refer clients to food banks and food pantries, and encourage them to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for food assistance. You can find your nearest food bank through Feeding America.

2. Educate yourself on how to be an ally for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) farmers. Soul Fire Farm is a BIPOC-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.

3. Encourage clients to support local farmers by joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in their area. All money spent goes directly to supporting the local farmer. Find a CSA here.

4. Take action by urging Congress to expand access to SNAP and food security measures.

5. Prevent food waste by decoding “expiration” dates (aka “best buy”/“use by” dates). The International Food Information Council Foundation has a valuable tool here.

6. Maintain healthful—and sustainable—diets during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations provides tips here.

— Chris Vogliano, MS, RD, is a globally recognized public health dietitian who’s passionate about creating equitable and sustainable food systems. Chris has given more than 80 academic presentations both domestically and internationally, has served as the first Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Research Fellow for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, and is currently a PhD candidate at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, where he’s researching biodiverse and sustainable food systems in Pacific Small Island Developing States.

— Sarah Katherine Gaston is a student at Saint Louis University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics with an emphasis on culinary arts. Her specific interests include pediatric nutrition, diets for special needs populations, and functional nutrition.

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