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The food industry nearly broke down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will take creativity and ingenuity to recover what’s been lost.
By Amy Martin
mpty grocery store shelves. Long lines at food pantries. Viral outbreaks at meat-processing plants. When the U.S. shut down in March to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the food system snapped.
As many families tried to stockpile supplies for a quarantine of unknown duration, grocery stores and food pantries struggled to meet the increased demand. Meanwhile, restaurants, schools and senior centers closed, leaving suppliers and food service companies without a way to get food to customers.
“The pandemic turned everything on its head, especially for congregate and emergency food providers,” said Cara Donovan Mitchell ’08, the food policy manager at United Way of Western Connecticut.
Almost overnight, food pantries lost many of their volunteers, since they tend to be retired people over the age of 60, who are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, Mitchell said. At the same time, unemployment skyrocketed, grocery stores no longer had merchandise to donate to food pantries, and the disruptions in the supply chain—from closed factories to delayed shipping—meant pantries couldn’t order items in bulk. In some cases, pantry staff were forced to go to grocery stores and buy whatever items remained on the shelf.
“They couldn’t find a lot of the staple items like rice, tuna and pasta, and when they could, it was very expensive since the demand was driving up food prices. The price of pasta went up 40% at one point,” Mitchell said.
“They couldn’t get everything they needed, and more people were showing up at the door than ever before. In Danbury, the number of people going to food pantries tripled, and in Stamford, we saw the numbers double.
“There is extreme disparity and inequality in this part of the state,” Mitchell said. “We were hit very hard. There were pantries running out of food and turning people away.”
While the initial situation was dire, Mitchell says the larger story is one of creativity and ingenuity within the emergency food system.
Younger people who had been laid off or furloughed stepped up to replace elderly volunteers. Senior centers pivoted from serving meals in person to delivery or grab-and-go models. Food pantries and nonprofit organizations began delivering groceries to homebound seniors and others in COVID-19 high-risk groups. Schools provided free meals to families.
Some restaurants and corporations also joined in the effort, in part to keep food service workers employed. Mitchell worked with Food Rescue US, the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and the food service company Sodexo on an initiative through which more than 50 Sodexo cafeteria, catering and kitchen employees at Boehringer Ingelheim’s Ridgefield, Connecticut, campus prepared more than 250 meals a day for community members in need.
“People worked collaboratively to problem-solve and figure out new systems to make sure others had access to food,” Mitchell said.
Sustainable food entrepreneur David Barber ’88 has been in the farm-to-table restaurant business for more than 20 years. Barber and his brother, a chef, co-own Blue Hill, a working-farm restaurant and consulting company that supports sustainable agriculture. The company has two restaurant locations, one in Greenwich Village and the other at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York.
Barber remembers worrying about his employees’ safety, particularly at the New York City location, when he first began hearing reports about a novel coronavirus spreading in China and Italy. The restaurant closed on Friday, March 13, and Stone Barns closed the next day. Blue Hill quickly went from 245 employees to 81, a decision Barber called “heartbreaking.”
“A business like ours is labor-intensive, with thin margins and a big staff. We were not prepared—there is no real way to prepare for something like this,” he said.
One week after closing, the company launched a to-go boxed-food program featuring themed boxes of produce, meat and fish. The initial goal was to have some activity for the remaining staff, but very quickly an imperative second goal emerged—to save Blue Hill’s small farming and fishing partners.
“They are pummeled,” Barber said of the more than 70 farms and fisheries that supply Blue Hill. “Most farm-to-table chefs haven’t bought anything since March, and if they have, it has been a fraction of what they would typically buy. How to get these farms through to next spring is a big question mark.”
That’s also a concern of Rachel Black, assistant professor of anthropology, who has spent much of her career studying the production, distribution and consumption of food. This past summer, she worked with four student researchers to study the impact of the pandemic on small-scale farms in New London County.
As wholesale business and direct sales to restaurants dried up, many of the local farms worked to expand their community-supported agriculture offerings. There was, at least initially, an increased demand from consumers, which Black says was likely due to both supermarket shortages and concerns about contracting COVID-19 from food or from supermarkets themselves.
“I’m fascinated by this model of direct sales [between farmer and consumer] that is about building community and risk-sharing with the farmer,” she said.
Black and her students conducted interviews and surveys, and found direct sales to be a mixed bag of results. Some farmers were having success with the model, while others found it difficult or cost-prohibitive to get personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies to safely conduct business.
Interestingly, says Black, despite the increase in demand, none of the farmers raised their prices.
“The pandemic made costs go up and profit margins go down, but they kept their prices the same. When I asked why, local farmers would say, ‘These people I feed, I care about them.’ I learned that there was this economy of community that is something special, but this care work goes unpaid,” she said.
The people who run these small sustainable farms do so because they are passionate about it, but even before the pandemic, the razor-thin margins and unpredictability of farming—combined with minimal, if any, government support—caused so many small farms to close across Connecticut that Black says the first step in the research project was for the students to call farms to see which ones were still operating.
“Food-system change has to be structural. The state government is going to have to play a role; it hasn’t done a good job of supporting local farmers. There needs to be not just emergency help but policies and support to maintain these farms that are so important to their communities,” Black said.
While state and local governments need to step up, Barber says consumers need to do their part too.
“This could dial back farm-to-table for a generation,” he said. “If you are going to do more cooking, use this as an opportunity to understand what is grown in your region and how to use it. If you are going to a restaurant, take your dollars to one that supports local farms. Or the farmers won’t be here next year. They just can’t make it.”
THE FUTURE OF FOOD
In the short term, Barber estimates as many as 2.2 million restaurants around the world will close, but this may bring about new opportunities, he says.
“I think the restaurant industry will be changed for the foreseeable future. This isn’t about surviving to go back to the way things were; this is surviving to thrive,” he said. “Coming out of COVID, those restaurants that are producing quality food are really going to be ready to hit the ground running.”
Barber added that he hopes consumers will use their experiences during the pandemic to think more deeply about how they engage with the food system.
“We should capitalize on this time and get smarter about the way we eat,” he said.
Mitchell is hoping for change too, because the burden can’t all fall on nonprofits like the United Way.
“This pandemic has exacerbated the disparities that exist in our food system. The people who were already experiencing food insecurity were more heavily impacted by the pandemic and economic fallout,” she said.
While she appreciates how quickly communities worked together to relieve the immediate pain and suffering during the crisis, she would like to see more philanthropy, advocacy work and policies directed toward upstream solutions to eliminate food insecurity and develop a more just food system.
“We can’t measure success by how many people we serve at food pantries—if the numbers keep increasing, that just shows the problem is getting worse and we aren’t actually solving it. The real questions should be: ‘How do we get people out of the line? How do we address the injustice and the oppression in our food system?’”
These questions weigh on Black’s mind. As the coordinator for Conn’s new Food Pathway, part of Connections, she’s working to give today’s students the tools they need to apply the liberal arts to food studies and create a group of innovators who have the skills to tackle these pressing problems.
The response from students has left her encouraged for the future.
“These courses fill up so fast, and the students are deeply engaged,” she said. “They really care about where their food is coming from, and they are thinking very critically about what is happening in this country and in the world.”