In early spring, there were reports of farmers throwing out hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk, burying perfectly good crops, and euthanizing hogs due to meat-processing-plant closures. Locust plagues in parts of Africa, toilet-paper shortages, and real risks of starvation for children dependent on meal programs got broad attention. Dire warnings of an impending global hunger pandemic were also issued.
Between social distancing, the lack of knowledge about COVID-19, and all that troubling news, it felt like we were on the edge of a cliff with a tornado pushing us onward. Apocalyptic prophecies seemed all too real against that backdrop. Then something amazing happened.
Garden supply stores, plant sellers, seed companies, and hatcheries were swamped with orders. Internet searches on how to grow food, raise chickens, and be more self-sufficient sky-rocketed. Backyard by backyard, people began reclaiming their homegrown food heritage.
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What started as panic has become passion. Many people have discovered how much they love growing food; keeping livestock; and spending more time at home learning, creating, and building. This is good for our mental and physical health, our personal food security, and our planet. We need to keep that momentum going.
Our Future Choices
We are living through a pivotal moment in history. The pandemic has pushed pause on many activities, giving us more time to think critically about the kind of world we want to create going forward. Toward that end, the rest of this article takes a hard look at some of the lessons COVID-19 has taught us, particularly about our food supply.
I’ll also wrap up with simple ideas to help you focus your efforts on food security in light of this assessment. Let’s get started.
Lessons From COVID-19
In many ways, COVID-19 has been a great teacher. It has shown us the weaknesses in our supply chains. For example, even if a safe and effective vaccine for this virus is made, due to current shortages, we may not have enough glass vials in which to distribute it.
It has highlighted the inequalities of our personal and community spaces. Images of people singing from balconies during the lockdown in Italy were inspiring. But what about the people who don’t have balconies and spent lockdown without windows or in unsafe places? For many, housing prices are so high and wages so low that COVID-19 has transformed basic human necessities like natural light and fresh air into unaffordable luxuries.
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COVID-19 brought into stark relief the complexities and failures in our medical system, from shortages of personal protective equipment for medical staff to the lack of information on treatment protocols and the exorbitant hospital bills for survivors. It’s clear that we need to rethink medical care from the ground up.
Of course, the virus has also been a critical reminder about the vulnerabilities of our high-risk food systems. Even though we’ve known about the risks for years, now we’ve witnessed them play out in real time rather than just imagining them in some distant future.
Weather events like drought, hurricanes, flooding, fires, pests, and pathogens have threatened food security for ages. Yes … the violence, regularity, and immense costs of catastrophic weather events are dramatically increasing as our climate changes.
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Still, pre-COVID, the caloric content available for each person in the U.S. and the inherent waste built into our system allowed us leeway to weather certain kinds of food-system shocks. Global trade also cushions the blow after many of these events.
For example, after hurricane Michael decimated pecan crops and orchards in 2018, pecan prices were expected to rise dramatically. However, since China put tariffs on nuts, Chinese demand for pecans declined. With low global demand, the price of pecans fell lower than in previous years. As a result, in the U.S., only the farmers (who needed a high pecan price to offset losses) suffered sticker shock over their reduced incomes.
Frankly, the complexity of our global food systems, and the fact that commodities markets—not farmers—set prices, make baseline price stability easier to manage. As with the pecan example, much of the price burden across our food supply is shifted to farmers, not consumers. Wealthy, industrialized countries also leverage trade relationships, complex financial tools, and collective buying power to ensure price regularity.
In terms of paying less at the grocery store, these are good things. But for our farmers, the environment, human exploitation, and the long-term health of our food supply systems, it’s not the best strategy. If you want more personal insight into these complex issues, I highly recommend you read TGN author Judson Carroll’s thoughtful post, “Food Security, Quality, and Convenience in the COVID-19 Era.”
COVID-19 and Our Food Supply
COVID-19, however, is different than an isolated weather event, a single crop failure, or pricing systems that disadvantage farmers. The realities of this pandemic virus are global. They are felt by everyone, everywhere. Their actual impacts should make us rethink our beliefs about U.S. food security.
Challenge #1: Supply and Demand
We are a nation of people who outsource many of our needs, such as dry cleaning, pet grooming, haircuts, auto repair, home repair, medical care, and more. One of the most necessary and basic things we routinely outsource is food preparation.
According to the USDA:
For a typical dollar spent in 2018 by U.S. consumers on domestically produced food, including both grocery store and eating out purchases, 37.4 cents went to pay for services provided by foodservice establishments, 14.9 cents to food processors, and 12.3 cents to food retailers.
Although we don’t have official 2019 data yet, the restaurant industry was on track to see record gains as of August 2020 estimates. That means that, pre-COVID, people were eating out more than ever. Inversely, people were buying fewer raw ingredients to prepare at home. As such, much of our food supply was geared toward wholesale restaurant markets.
As COVID closed restaurants and we had to eat at home, that sudden shift in demand meant that even though the U.S. had plenty of food, we couldn’t get it to the people who needed it. Crops rotted in the fields. Milk was dumped by the truckload. Farmers fretted over whether to bother planting at all. Everyone involved in the restaurant industry saw their near to long-term livelihoods wiped out in an instant.
At home, we watched in horror at the extreme waste, while knowing that people were suffering hardships like we haven’t seen for generations. We also felt a real sense of panic as shelves emptied at alarming rates due to our own collective panic shopping.
Now, months later, suppliers, shipping companies, and grocers are adjusting to the new demands of providing food directly to consumers. Shelves are filling back up and staying filled with greater regularity. Consumers are also doing less stockpiling. The USDA has assured us there are no nationwide food shortages.
The FDA has also allowed food companies to modify their ingredients due to COVID shortages, without relabeling, to help meet demand. In fact, the FDA has issued quite a few temporary and interim guidelines to make it possible for businesses to operate with regularity during this crisis.
Even though things are a bit more stable now, the tension between wholesale and retail demand is likely to be in flux for the foreseeable future. Also, supply and demand aren’t the only forces testing our supply systems. There are a few more we need to look at, such as factory-farming risks.
Challenge #2: Food Factory Closures
It’s no secret that the farms that supply restaurants and grocery stores are run like factories. They are mechanized and automated in every way they can be. When human labor is required, that, too, is mechanized to the extent possible using assembly-line methods.
For example, in a chicken-processing plant, one person might kill, another cut off the head and another the feet, another make the slit in the carcass, another remove the viscera, another do a feather check, another put chickens on a rack, another push the rack into the fumigator and another into the packaging area, and so on.
I am imagining this based on descriptions I’ve heard. So, my details may be a bit off. But you get the point. Essentially, a line of people perform repetitive tasks to maximize overall efficiency.
This kind of mechanized human labor is physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful. People in these jobs tend to suffer a wide range of related health problems. Those environments also put them at great risk for exposure to and complications from COVID-19.
Since these jobs require little skill, despite the health risks, they also tend to be low wage. Many workers can’t afford to take off for illness, so they work sick. Some can’t afford single-family homes, so they may live in crowded multifamily spaces. This means that viruses shared at work spread quickly within a broader community, creating more challenges.
Meat-processing plants are clearly at risk for continued interruptions from COVID-19 outbreaks for these reasons. Fruit and vegetable packing plants, food distribution centers, and other food manufacturing environments also face these types of risks from outbreaks.
In other words, fresh foods that can’t be processed by machines or single operators are going to continue to be a weak point in our food system until we beat the virus.
Challenge #3: Potential Price Increases
COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we do business. Think of the plexiglass going up at each check stand, the cart wipers and cleaning stations at every store, the rearranging of aisles to allow for social distancing. These are just the tip of the iceberg on all the adjustments businesses have made to be able to operate during the pandemic.
Basically, every operator along every part of our supply line has spent money to become COVID-19 compliant. Processors, packers, warehouse workers, trucking companies, gas stations, railways, airlines, barges, accounting offices, and so on have all invested in new safety measures, training, and more.
These costs must be paid for at some point. In many places, price freezes and price-gouging laws have delayed inevitable price increases. Yet, you can bet that dividend earners in publicly traded companies won’t willingly bear these operating losses long-term. Small-business owners will also have to find ways to remain profitable even with increased costs of doing business.
Right now, we are in an unusual situation where the consumer price index (CPI) for March through May has declined to levels below where they were when COVID-19 started. In part, this is because low gas prices, less frequent travel, reduced clothing prices, and reduced auto insurance rates helped offset the rising costs of shelter, medical care, and household furnishings and operations.
But, if you really think about it, it’s not that our cost of living has declined, it’s that we’ve scaled back our spending to essential goods and services only. If we were really comparing apples to apples, not apples to some alternate-universe simulation of apples, our cost experience would be quite different.
Our calculations on cost of living might also be very different when all the medical bills roll in and when taxpayers have to pick up the tab on the trillions spent on COVID relief packages. What about when we start cashing our post-COVID paychecks and find they fall short of our pre-COVID earnings? This question brings us to the next food-security challenge.
Challenge #4: Economic Losses
Job loss, post-COVID, has been unprecedented. We are unquestionably in a recession. Though some jobs may return as the economy reopens, there are also a significant number of jobs that will never return or won’t be as financially rewarding when they do.
We know that the 2008 recession impacted our earnings in the following ways:
- Cumulative financial losses from those who graduated during the recession ranged from $60,000–$100,000 on average over a 10-year period.
- The “gig-economy” became normal, with 1 out of 3 people working in temporary or contract positions rather than in long-term employment.
- Newly created jobs paid less, had fewer benefits, and offered less long-term security.
- Savings levels for Americans, on average, became $0.
We don’t know yet what will happen after this COVID-19 recession. But if our experience from 2008 is any indicator, it doesn’t look good.
Even if food prices miraculously stay low, if your paycheck never returns to its pre-virus pay rate, the percentage of your income spent just on groceries may go way up. Or, perhaps you’ll just buy smaller quantities of lower-priced food. That was, in fact, what most people did after the last recession. Data shows that we cut food spending to keep up with other bills until about 2016.
From my perspective, I see a very real risk that many people will have to swap quality food for cheap food to make ends meet. For those already living on cheap food, then buying less food becomes the inevitable next step.
Challenge #5: Uncertainty Factor
The previous four challenges are easily researchable, predictable trends that are happening now. They stink. Yet, they are basically to be expected during a pandemic virus that leads to a recession. But what about the things we don’t know?
There’s been a lot about COVID-19 that doesn’t follow normal virus behavior. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories. I’m talking about what we know at this point:
- The virus is lethal to some and mild for others.
- The virus can be transmitted before it’s even detected by its hosts.
- This virus isn’t cyclical like most flus and shows no signs of slowing in warm weather.
- This virus causes inexplicable latent symptoms in some people and is being likened to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
- We don’t know if antibodies provide long-term protection against reinfection.
- The CDC says, “We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations.”
This is not a comprehensive list. This is just the short list of reasons why I, personally, act with extreme caution to avoid inadvertently catching and spreading the virus.
I’m just a homesteader and writer, not an epidemiologist. But renowned epidemiologists with collective eons of experience are scratching their head over this virus and acting with extreme caution. That fact alone makes me certain there’s much more to learn about COVID-19 before we can move forward with confidence.
Also, frankly, all this uncertainty is making lots of other people and systems go crazy. From COVID parties that turn to super-spreader events to tantrums over masks in grocery stores, there’s a lot of nutty stuff going on all around us. Here’s an example that recently flabbergasted me.
Stock Market Risks
How did stock markets just have their best quarter in 20 years while the economy is tanking? As far as I can tell, stock market investors seem to be completely ruled by their emotions when it comes to buying and selling, rather than by our COVID-19 realities. Frankly, I think investors are so eager to see signs of hope, they are imagining them.
Fairy tales like that quarterly performance seem all too reminiscent of the underlying causes of the 2008 Great Recession. That event, as we already covered, resulted in lots of people having to reduce their food standards to make ends meet.
This is also just one virus. New virus strains are possible at any point. As I write, a new swine flu called G4 EA H1N1 has been detected in pigs in China. According to researchers, it has pandemic potential, though with diligence it is also controllable in these early stages. Ebola outbreaks keep recurring, and soon we’ll have our normal flu season to contend with.
I don’t want to spread fear. But the fact is, we are in uncharted territory and we simply don’t know what all our risks are yet. We know how to manage our food supply during a hurricane, fires, floods, and now during a pandemic. But do we know how to manage it during a pandemic with multiple weather events, a new virus outbreak, epic droughts, and increasing global conflicts?
This uncertainty can make people act in unexpected ways. We all know there have been some pretty ugly moments. But there have also been a lot of positive responses.
The Good News!
The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, is shining a light on issues that would have been easier to ignore when the world wasn’t on pause for a pandemic. Pollution vanishing and city skylines becoming visible, stargazing without constant airplane interruptions, and wildlife visiting formerly populated areas are beautiful side benefits of us staying home amidst all this uncertainty. These events show us how much more beautiful our world could be if we focus on healing our environments.
Also, going back to the beginning of this article, what a joy to see heirloom seed providers take down their websites for maintenance because the demand was literally overwhelming! I am sorry for their extra work and stress caused by the unexpected demand. Yet the idea of all that homegrown food appearing on tables everywhere has been a light in the darkness.
Despite the traumatic shocks our supply, demand, and distribution systems suffered this year, one other important thing stood out to me. Our industrial food system surprised me with its resilience so far.
Trust me … that’s not resounding praise. But I am grateful that it is working well enough to allow us time to adjust, rethink, and hopefully make some much-needed changes. However, now is not the time to relax and assume that the worst is behind us.
We should continue to make preparations for short-term outages and demand long-term improvements to our food systems. I can’t in good conscience recommend that you start hoarding food indiscriminately when experts are telling us to shop in two-week increments so we can all eat. But there are ways to stock up safely and increase your home food security that won’t set off more panic-buying frenzies.
Let’s look at 10 things you can do now to feel more confident given our current food-supply challenges.
10-Step Food Security Action Plan
#1. Buy in Bulk
Bulk stores are now operating at or above their pre-COVID levels. So, rather than wiping out the pasta shelf at your local grocery, buy your dry and canned goods at bulk goods warehouses.
#2. Shop Restaurants
Some restaurants have turned into makeshift grocery stores so they can remain open. As such, you may be able to make arrangements with them to buy in bulk from their food suppliers for small service fees.
#3. Order Online
Many online restaurant retailers will also sell to the general public. You’ll have to deal with high minimum order requirements. So, consider making a restaurant buyers’ club in your community to leverage your group buying power and get wholesale restaurant prices. Pick up orders in person to avoid shipping delays or extra costs when possible.
#4. Stock Up Slowly
If those first 3 options aren’t doable, then stock up slowly. Perhaps cut out some of your luxury items like junk food and redirect those funds to slowly building a supply of dried and canned goods. To get the most bang for your buck, focus on high-calorie, high-protein, or nutrient-loaded items. Beans, nuts, dried fruits, rice, quinoa, wheat kernels, and more are all great, easy-to-store options.
#5. Grow/Raise Your Own
Given that meat and fresh vegetables are clearly weak points in our food supply during this pandemic, if you want to grow and raise your own, that’s where you should focus your efforts. Save growing calorie crops for later.
Right now, raise chickens or ducks for eggs or meat.
Raise rabbits for meat.
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Grow a vegetable garden that supplies your lettuce, kale, chard, beets, turnips, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, string beans, basil, and more. That will make meals more interesting, even if you get most of your calories from dried goods. Plus, that will improve your overall health by getting all those fresh, potent phytonutrients into your diet.
Also, make sure you stock up on seeds or learn to save your own, so you don’t run out.
#6. Share Extras
Right now, more than ever, we need to build goodwill in our communities. Even though we must practice social distancing, virus transmissions from food products are considered low risk. So, if you can find opportunities to share any excess food you have with your community, you create goodwill that often pays you back later with dividends.
#7. Support Local Farmers
Local farms don’t have the same distribution challenges as “Big Ag” does. If you buy direct, subscribe to a CSA, or otherwise support your local farmers, you get access to fresh food. But you also ensure that local farms continue to be able to serve the broader community just in case things get worse.
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#8. Forage More
It’s incredible how much food many homeowners have in their own backyard without realizing it. At my old suburban residence, I had giant edible bolete mushrooms and sumptuous dandelion greens exploding in parts of my yard. Had I only known how to identify and prepare them back then, I would have feasted for free a lot more often!
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#9. Make Extra Money
We don’t know what comes next or how long this will last. So, if you have hobbies or talents that can earn you extra money or be used in barter, why not put them to good use? In uncertain times, having a little put away for emergencies, just in case prices climb quickly or there’s a sale on your favorite food items, gives you more freedom in your decision-making.
#10. Act Long-Term
Those first 9 things can help you be more resilient now. But we really need to be in this in for the long-term.
Make plans to grow half of your food.
Get involved in food policy at the local level. Call your legislators to demand that local growers and producers be given preferential treatment over big corporations.
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Start community gardens, food forests, and edible landscapes.
Your long-term food-security projects will depend on your resources, interests, and ambitions. But the biggest lesson that COVID-19 has taught us about our food supply is that ensuring our personal food security is up to us.
What Do You Think?
Do you have ideas on how to increase food security? Please share them with our community via the comments below.
Tasha Greer is a regular contributor to The Grow Network and has cowritten several e-books with Marjory Wildcraft. The author of “Grow Your Own Spices” (December 2020), she also blogs for MorningChores.com and Mother Earth News. For more tips on homesteading and herb and spice gardening, follow Tasha at Simplestead.com.