Empty shelves lining supermarkets, farmers dumping milk and abandoning fields of crops, restaurants laying off staff—the American food landscape has changed dramatically in just a month, thanks to stay-at-home advisories and social distancing in the age of COVID-19.
But how is the food supply chain and its workers affected? What foods are now less available to which people, and what can we expect going forward?
We don’t yet have all the answers, according to Timothy Griffin, William Masters, and Jennifer Hashley of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The COVID-19 crisis is still unfolding, consumers and food system players are still adjusting, and the growing season in many places has yet to hit full swing.
But COVID-19 has certainly called attention to the weaknesses and inequities of our food system—and to the need, and the opportunity, to address them, the three experts agreed.
A change of feeding grounds
We can start by recognizing the fundamental shift in the way Americans eat, said professor Tim Griffin, division chair of Agriculture, Food, and Environment at the Friedman School, whose classes cover agricultural science and policy and the food system. “Before, roughly half the food spending in the U.S. was what we call away from home—restaurants, the cafe near work, those types of venues,” Griffin said. “That number is a lot smaller now, which means people are having to buy food and make it at home.”
Instead of 50/50, the split is more like 90/10 at the moment, Griffin estimated. “And the system is trying to react to that, because now the demand is coming from a different direction—now it’s coming largely through conventional grocery stores,” he said.
Grocery stores reacted fairly quickly, according to Griffin—after initial shortages of goods like chicken and pasta, restocking is now keeping pace with demand in most cases. Professor William Masters, who teaches food economics at the Friedman School, said that reflects a strength of the system.
“Our food supply is remarkably resilient precisely because our sources of food are geographically dispersed. We haven’t been reliant on food from only one place,” Masters said. “Our food system is not like a chain—it’s like a mesh. We can have failings at one place, but the rest of the network fills it in. The risk is when a whole category of activity fails, such as simultaneous outbreaks at meatpacking plants in different states, or border closures and outbreaks that stop migrant workers from harvesting fruits and vegetables at many locations.”
The biggest and most important sector affected by this crisis is the food service industry, Masters pointed out, accounting for a majority of the jobs lost to date. Some thirteen million food service and hospitality jobs are at risk, as customers stay away from office cafeterias and university dining halls, restaurants and cafes, many of which may never reopen. “They’re trying to keep workers employed and to be part of the solution and make sure people have food,” Griffin said. “But sales are abysmal, and a lot of restaurants are in crisis mode.”
“This is the largest loss of income in human history, in terms of a single event with one identifiable cause putting a sudden stop to physical interactions”
As restaurants and institutions shut down, companies upstream in the food supply system, such as meat packing and dairy processing plants, have struggled to switch from bulk delivery for food service use into the retail grocery sector. As consumer incomes fall, farmers have seen dramatic declines in prices received for livestock and animal feed, while commodity prices for basic staples like wheat have fallen less.
“This is the largest loss of income in human history, in terms of a single event with one identifiable cause putting a sudden stop to physical interactions,” Masters said. And as with other kinds of crises, it’s hitting hardest among those with the least ability to bounce back. “The lost jobs are disproportionately in food and other retail services that have become the main employers for people without a college degree,” Masters said. “It’s precisely the vulnerable and most at-risk people who are most hurt by this disease, both directly in terms of exposure and severity of illness, and also indirectly through loss of income.”