Since March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has caused a severe economic downturn and generated a spike in food insecurity in the country. At the same time, farmers had to destroy significant quantities of food because they could not find markets for their products. The crisis has revealed weaknesses and contradictions in our food system – but also opens up opportunities for reform.
A lack of resilience in our food system
Both supply and demand were drastically impacted. While cattle kept producing milk and vegetables kept growing, shortages in farm labor made it difficult to exploit and harvest them. Many open-air markets, restaurants, schools, and other food service operations had to close, and exports mostly decreased. Even though consumers are buying more in grocery stores, they overall eat less of fresh—and perishable—products such as meat, produce, and seafood.
Pivoting to different markets is particularly difficult for large-scale, hyper-specialized companies with specific infrastructure and without a diversified range of business partners. For example, farmers that were selling milk to schools were not able to re-package it for retail stores. Long and centralized supply chains appeared to be less resilient than smaller and regionalized chains.
The importance of revaluing food and food system workers
Some local governments have taken action in the short term by helping redistribute surplus food through food assistance organizations. Yet, redistributing excess food is not a silver bullet solution. Food banks were short of transportation, storage capacity, and workers before the pandemic, but even more so now because the majority of volunteers were in the vulnerable age bracket for COVID-19. And the available surplus food does not necessarily match the demand of vulnerable populations.
The crisis made it clear that workers along the food chain are essential since labor shortages have caused both large amounts of losses and food insecurity. Yet labor has long been undervalued in the food system, and both farmers and food service workers can be victims of food insecurity themselves. Future food policies should re-value the work of those who produce and distribute our food, and support fair wages, purchasing power, and access to quality food in the first place. Policies should also ensure better logistical and financial support to those (mostly unpaid workers) who redistribute our food, which also helps reduce waste.
Critical trade-offs between sustainability and food safety
We need a buffer of extra food—that generates a certain level of waste—in order to face a situation like this one, and also to ensure healthy and tasty diets as well as food safety. There are inherent trade-offs: fresh vegetables that we tend to consume more out of the home, for example, generate more waste but are also healthier than many of their less perishable counterparts. School lunch programs are also a source of food waste, but they considerably improve children’s diets, especially among underprivileged populations.
The pandemic has also led many people to reemphasize food safety, even though there is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission through food. But an over-emphasis can lead to waste, for example through conservative expiration dates or strict regulations on repurposing food products and “upcycling” by-products. The use of single-use packaging, intended for hygiene reasons, can both reduce food waste and increase food security but causes additional waste and pollution. Even if some local governments had to put on hold policies that supported the development of a circular economy, such as composting programs in large cities, it is important to support environmental goals alongside other priorities.
Policies supporting sustainable and local food systems
While the federal coronavirus relief package supports farmers based on the surface area of their fields, state and local policies may be able to provide additional support to sustainable farming practices while ensuring fair prices for producers, limiting overproduction and promoting quality over quantity. Producers have already been more open about their struggles to find markets for their products, which may increase supply chain transparency and improve supplier-buyer relationships in the future.
When building policy recommendations, we need to challenge the discourse that large consolidated chains are better at handling crises. We actually see that food systems could be more resilient and would generate less waste if farmers could access more diversified markets, with more direct links to consumers at a local scale. There is currently a spike in direct-to-consumer sales, and Community Supported Agriculture organizations now have long waiting lists.
Having more regionalized and circular food chains reduces the need for transportation, (disposable) packaging as well as food safety related risks. Thus it is essential to have a joint agenda for sustainable food systems and for a circular economy. This requires policies and incentive structures that support food waste prevention in the first place (beyond the minimum necessary level of surplus), then donations of nutritious food, then feeding animals in a safe way, and only afterwards recycling inedible food by-products through various forms of composting and bio-digestion.
The role of entrepreneurship and innovative technologies
The crisis itself has led to innovative partnerships and solidarity, such as industries and restaurants preparing food for first responders. More generally, new business models can increase flexibility and collaboration within the food supply chain, including through forecasting systems and platforms that help better match supply and demand. Many start-ups are tackling food waste, such as Too Good to Go, which optimizes the sales of discounted surplus products. Public and private investments are key to develop and generalize such innovations.
The long-term impacts of the pandemic on food businesses are still unknown. The expected growth of online shopping in the following years might help reduce household food waste (with less “impulse” purchases and improved planning of orders) and also increase food security for households who do not have easy access to grocery stores. Increased automation in food manufacturing and supply chain may help optimize processes, improve food safety, and reduce waste. But these innovations further disconnect citizens from the true value of their food. Long-term prevention of food waste requires structural changes beyond technological solutions.
Changing social norms to re-value food
The biggest opportunity that the crisis offers us is to change how we value food. Even if the initial panic buying may have led to excess consumption and waste, we also see people making the most of their food and learning new skills that help reduce waste, such as planning meals in advance, storing food better, appropriately tracking expiration dates, cooking with available ingredients, and reusing and sharing leftovers.
It is too early to assess the long-term permanence and impacts of these practices, but the restaurant closures and difficult access to grocery stores have already challenged the idea that we can eat anything we want when we want it. A more sustainable food system would have to be convenient in a different way, with more availability of local and seasonal food, and more attention to farmers and food service workers. Only a transformation of social norms will make us (re)value quality and sustainability over quantity, and resilience over abundance…and maybe we needed a crisis to do that.