In Spite of Disruptions, We Didn’t Run Out of Food. Why Not?

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At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national media were quick to reassure the public that grocery stores would not run out of food and that the country’s food supply chain was secure. While the effort to provide comfort during a frightening moment is commendable, those reassurances did not last long. In April, meatpacking plants across the nation suffered outbreaks of COVID-19, causing closures of important facilities across America’s food supply chain.

The reassurance that the country’s food supply would remain unaffected may stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a supply chain is. The term “supply chain” itself has gained an almost mythical quality during the past several decades as more Americans have learned that much of what we use and consume is manufactured or grown elsewhere. That is true of our smartphones, our automobiles—and our food. In reality, there is nothing mythical about a supply chain. They are not magic. A supply chain involves, at its most basic level, human beings moving an item from one place to another. Those human beings may need an extensive array of tools and technology to facilitate that movement, but all supply chains depend on humans. And human beings can get sick, especially when they are working in close quarters with other human beings.

“The reassurances that the food supply chain would be unaffected went a long way toward calming the public,” said Fred Likkel, executive director at Whatcom Family Farmers. “In the end, though, the food supply would always be affected. Anyone who argues otherwise has limited exposure to how a food supply chain works.”

Human beings are a critical component of food supply chains, Likkel said.
“This industry depends on our workforce,” he said. “Even the most mechanized farm still requires a healthy labor pool, and that doesn’t even address the workforce health and safety challenges that exist in processing facilities.”

The impact on the food supply chain goes beyond worker health and safety. Mandatory restaurant, hospitality and school closures reduced demand locally and nationwide for milk and other dairy products, causing an already vulnerable industry to suffer potentially unsustainable losses. Since 2015, America has lost nearly nine dairies per day. This year was supposed to see the industry turn around, with milk prices expected to rise for the first time in five years. However, the coronavirus-induced crash has caused some dairies to resort to dumping unwanted milk as processors deal with limited capacity and decimated demand. The resulting dichotomy of worried shoppers and farmers faced with the sudden disappearance of entire market sectors has stirred up images of the 1930s, when hungry families saw crops stored or destroyed to help maintain adequate prices.

While 2020 has been difficult for Whatcom County’s dairy farmers, other crops have fared better. Blueberry and raspberry markets are still relatively healthy. Losing restaurants and institutional kitchens has had far less impact on the berry market. Still, farmers who have been spared the harshest effects of the pandemic still face significant uncertainty.

“In Eastern Washington and Idaho, some farms have cut their acreage by 25% or more,” Likkel said. “Given that this is a global pandemic, looking for other markets for crops is hard. Even with reopening, fear about the disease will probably lead to reduced demand for restaurants and other foodservice options farmers rely on. While many farms began the pandemic in an already vulnerable position, no farmer could adequately plan for a near-total shutdown of the local, national and global economy.”

Reduction in demand and uncertainty about the future could have a disproportionate impact on Whatcom County. In this community, there are over 1,700 farms that help generate more than $360 million in annual revenue. The county ranks in the top 3% of the most agriculturally productive counties in the nation. Given the importance of the industry, even a slight reduction in demand has a significant impact on the county’s economic health.

The pandemic also has shined a spotlight on another vulnerable aspect of the county’s food supply chain. Even prior to the pandemic, too many county families faced challenges related to food security. Rapid increases in housing prices during the past decade, regulatory restrictions that have increased the cost of food, and other market factors have meant that families often struggle to stock their fridges and pantries even in the best of times—and 2020 is certainly not the best of times.

“One conversation that is picking up steam because of the pandemic is food security,” Likkel said. “Most of our local producers do not grow the staples typically distributed at food banks. As unemployment increases, demand on food banks also increases. Our local farmers have a difficult time growing vegetables, which typically fare better in the warmer, eastern parts of our state. That means that we can have a limited impact on food security issues—but we should still have the discussion, and we should still do everything we can to make sure everyone in our community has enough to eat.”

Like almost every other industry, the agriculture sector in Whatcom County is eager to help local government better understand the challenges and opportunities that stem from the pandemic. When asked how local government can help, Fred Likkel responded the same way most business leaders have responded: Government can try to understand our industry better.

“Producing food that is safe to consume should absolutely be the No. 1 priority of every farmer and every regulator,” Likkel said. “After all, an unregulated or poorly regulated food market played an important role in starting the pandemic. That said, many local regulations often do little more than drive up production costs or restrict our ability to grow certain crops altogether. The results of regulations like these are not safer crops. Production simply moves to other locations. Shoppers buy the same food. That food is just produced somewhere else, and local families suffer.”

While there are few bright sides to a global pandemic, the disruptions to the food supply chain have helped the public gain a better understanding that food security is not inevitable, and neither is it simply an issue for disadvantaged families to consider. Stocked shelves and fridges are not inevitable. We have food in our pantries and in our bellies because men and women across Whatcom County work hard in our fields, in our kitchens, in our restaurants and in our grocery stores and markets. Despite the outbreaks of COVID-19 in processing plants and on farms, the food supply has remained relatively steady. When future generations write the story of 2020, the heroism and hard work of the people keeping our food supply chains intact need to be recognized.

And if this ever happens again, let’s ask those same folks to figure out a better supply chain for toilet paper. ■