December 8, 2020

COVID-19 and its Lingering Impact on US Food Systems

 *This is part of our series on the nexus between COVID-19 and food systems.

Truthfully, it’s been quite a life-defining and uncertain year 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has continually posed an unprecedentedly lingering impact on my eating habits as well as on the U.S. food and socioeconomic systems. It is pertinent to note that even before the pandemic, the small farms were disappearing, a few banks were being bailed out, small agribusinesses bankruptcy was rife, and U.S. - Chinese trade wars. The food systems are also evolving due to inherent systemic racism and police brutality. The inequality and randomness impact of food systems was certainly aggravated by the murder of George Floyd in the heat of COVID-I9 pandemic.

The pre-pandemic food supplies and increased trade integration contributed to geographic spread of agri-food supply chains in the U.S. Invariably, all food products including fresh groceries, bread, fruits, vegetables, poultry, beverages, processed foods, red meats, fish and other edible consumables were always available at the grocery stores – Wholefoods, Safeway, Food Lion, Target, Costco, Walmart, Harris Teeter, etc. However, the first month of the pandemic created acute shortage of food supplies in the shelves.

The pandemic crippled food ordering books for large and small groceries stores throughout the spring and summer, thereby creating supply delays or backlogs. At the start of the fall, groceries orders began trickling in again, but the damage is done and making most food supply chain players with revenues percentages losses compared to 2019 year’s levels. The pandemic shows that the food systems are neither risk averse nor shock-absorbing to the COVID-19 disruptions. By implication most of the food items such as groceries, sanitation items and water were not available in these stores in the beginning of the pandemic.

As an economist, my thoughts were how network models and other economics science tools could identify sources of food systems risks stimulated by the pandemic and provide workable policies to enhance antifragility, thereby appropriately preparing for the future of food supply risks in the U.S in particular and the United States Mexico and Canada (USMCA) trade space in general. The USMCA trade deal was robustly designed to achieve colossal success, especially from a food systems viewpoint. In the first three to five months of the pandemic, I was always at Costco Wholesale to purchase yummy dino buddies for the kids, and there were none. For many weeks running in summer until fall, there was shortage of yummy dino buddies. When the yummy dino buddies supplies finally arrived at Costco from Canada, a very strict rationing policy was implemented so that one could only purchase one packet per family and until now when you can purchase three packets per Costco card holders, bearing in mind that the pandemic made most workers stay home without income and the U.S. government also closed its borders to all its neighbors in order to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of yummy dino buddies, it was really challenging for the kids to adapt to other food items such as tinned green peas and peanut butter.

Though the 2007/8 global ‘black swan’ was a trio food, fuel and financial crises, the fragility within the systems has not been reduced but instead it has been multiplied with people incurring higher debts with food, fuel and the financial crisis. In 2008, I was a regional agri-food policy analyst at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the 2007/8 global food crisis was really critical. Today, the unsustainable solution to the global 3F crisis has aggravated the current impact of this pandemic such that the U.S food system is much more fragile than it was twelve years ago. By implication, the food and socio-economic systems have become less robust and shakier due to the pandemic. However, a few agri-food sub-sectors are better off but the whole food systems is not. For instance, the food e-commerce was better off, and as a prime member of Amazon, I embarked on online purchases for groceries from Whole Foods.

My family totally missed our community farmers’ market which provided us with fresh and organic foods. In 2019, we were looking forward to the Fall 2020 Farmers’ Market season at Archwood Green Barns, Warrenton, and Rappahannock Farmers Markets. Invariably, we also missed the family get together space for music and relaxation at the Warrenton Farmers’ Market (Please see our picture at the music section of the Warrenton Farmers’ Market).

Family relaxation spot at Warrenton Farmer's Market before COVID-19

The Liberty Community Church, its leadership and members provided the ecosystem to reflect on our spiritual and nutritional growth in the sense that its pantry section provides food items for community members. Thereafter, there are hot cups of coffee and tea with church members every Sunday morning as well as the mid-week services.

Given that children have been home without going to schools for about seven months and now are resuming virtual learning since Fall 2020, this has implications for household food and snacks consumption, expenditure, budgeting, and health outcomes. The increased consumption of snacks and continuous compliance with washing hands incessantly makes one intensely aware of how we forget to follow these precautions before eating snacks most times. In spite of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Virginia State Health and Human Services and Fauquier country public schools collaborative efforts to promote fresh fruits and vegetables consumption among kids through the Fauquier Reaches for Excellence in School Health (FRESH), unhealthy snacking behavior  is incongruent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans DGAs 2020 – 2025 Agenda. Further, it is relevant to note the crucial role of the Fauquier Community Food Bank and Thrift Store in reducing the fragility of our community food systems during the pandemic.

At this juncture, food banking plays a great role in enhancing the capacities of food systems, as well as strengthening institutions towards eliminating hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition for the vulnerable population, especially in the emergency situations like this COVID-19 pandemic. According to Feeding America, a slow economic recovery and food supply chain challenges will exist throughout the year 2020. Most food banks that have been providing feeding and other nutrition needs experienced about 120 per cent increase in need, with a 45 per cent increase in new clients.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its inherent implications on fragile communities have rattled food systems experts to the point that they are looking beyond traditional solutions towards embracing innovative processes, approaches ideas, knowledge, and technologies. In response to these challenges, and in an attempt to reduce the randomness and disorders of the food and nutrition security policy space in the U.S., the No Hunger Food Bank and Systems Corporation (NHFBS) was established during the Summer 2020. NHFBS aims to deploy the most innovative technologies to enhance nutritional security among minority populations towards realizing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) Agenda in the U.S. In addition, a similar initiative, known as the No Hunger Food Bank Initiative (NHFBI) was formalized with the goal of eliminating hunger and realizing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) II for Africa.

Regardless of how the U.S. food systems have evolved during this pandemic, the ‘black swan’ outbreak has given all food systems stakeholders a reason to reevaluate how to make farmers’ markets and food supplies chains more innovative. In addition, this will make agri-food actors more prepared by identifying better ways to accomplish community shared food supply chain strategies which are well enabled with the systems not only in the US, but also all over the world.

Digital, medical (vaccines) and scientific approaches as well as social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions are being deployed to flatten the COVID-19 curve and decrease the rate of new cases. In spite of the containment policies being enforced by the U.S government to crush the virus, the number of infections has risen dramatically since the first week of March. In fact, the U.S has more confirmed cases and deaths than any other country worldwide. By implication, the food system is under great pressure towards making agri-food value chain actors evolve to become more antifragile. In response to the disruption wrecked on the U.S. food systems largely due to the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on the socioeconomic, the U.S. Government implemented the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Act is the first national emergency program to reduce the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on Americans, including farmers, ranchers and the food systems. Although not entirely novel, and as a preparedness strategy for the future, it is crucial to reinvent the food systems policies and approaches towards making them more antifragile through increased consumer-centered and community driven food systems and by data driven insights. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the U.S and global approach should not be to eliminate the virus but rather to de-multiply the spread of the pandemic. Optimistically, there has been encouraging news on vaccines discoveries and distribution, thereby shaping 2021 as a likely better year even if the food shortage and safety precautions that have been in place since March linger throughout the first half of the next year.

Gbadebo Odularu, PhD

Bay Atlantic University & Socio-Economic Research Applications and Projects (SERAP), Washington D.C;

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