As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes another area of vulnerability — the U.S. food supply, Americans find innovative ways to keep themselves and their communities fed.
With 40 million Americans unemployed and poverty on the rise, Feeding America expressed concerns on their website in April that the ongoing crisis, “could result in an estimated additional 17.1 million people experiencing food insecurity.”
Disruptions in the food supply chain and fewer donations from individuals, grocery stores and restaurants have caused food banks to suffer ongoing shortages.
On April 26th, Tyson Foods announced the closures of some plants as workers became infected with COVID-19.
“In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable.” Tyson said this would cause “millions of pounds of meat to disappear from the supply chain.”
The meatpacking industry,already plaguedwith poor working conditions and safety concerns, has become another hotspot alongside jails and nursing homes for the rapid spread of COVID-19.
According to the New York Times, meat companies are not legally required to disclose how many workers are sick as they reopen amid the pandemic.
Smaller Farms In Jeopardy
On May 19, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Coronavirus Assistance Program (CFAP) as part of the CARES act passed by Congress in March.
Up to $16 billion in direct relief payments will be disbursed to farmers and ranchers, but the CFAP does little to help smaller farms with the greatest need. Consistent with trade war bailout money paid to farmers, the bulk of assistance will go to the big wealthy farms. “That’s just the way it happens,” Perdue told CBS News in March.
In October of 2019, Purdue warned dairy farmers in Wisconsin concerned for their futures, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Even though smaller, community-focused farms are vital links in thefragile food supply chain, they are left to fend for themselves while also providing for the needs of their communities.
Fredando Jackson, Executive Director at Flint River Fresh, in Albany, GA is one of those farmers. Affectionately referred to as “Farmer Fredo,” Jackson takes to heart the defining four pillars of his non-profit organization; food access, youth leadership, economic opportunities, and land conservation.
“Our mission is to increase access to fresh, local, affordable food,” Jackson told Tarbell. He teaches how to plant staple crops at his Community Garden and on his Facebook page and hosts events including, “Grow Your Own Groceries” workshops, “Farm to Table Market’ and “Pop-up Food Stands.” Customers can order fresh produce boxes from his Community Farmstand several days a week which includes participation from other local farmers.
Collaborating with farmers and working hand in hand with local growers is a priority for Jackson as he acknowledges there is “still a disconnect for local growers having a space to sell their harvests.”
“In Southwest Georgia, we have entire cities that are “food deserts,” entire cities without grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables,” Jackson said.
Teaming up with other farmers, Jackson strives to transform food deserts into “food hubs” and address the broader issue of systemic racism in the food supply known as food apartheid.
“The lack of a grocery store speaks to the overall wellness and health of a community. If there’s no grocery store, there’s usually no clinic or other healthcare services,” he explains.
Jackson discovered his love for farming 14 years ago. “I lost my job and direction in life and spent three months living at Koinoina Farms in Americus, Ga. My time there and in nature served as a healing mechanism for me.”
Through preparing and sharing meals with others, Jackson learned the transformative power of food. “If it’s about the love of humanity, it rises above everything else. It’s easy to get along with others when you’re enjoying healthy, fresh food together,” Jackson said.
“After one of my mentors, Rev. James Orange, a foot soldier of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suffered a massive heart attack, I became passionate about food justice and wanting to connect others with homegrown healthy foods,” Jackson added.
He encourages his community to “eat a rainbow” of fruits and vegetables to combat disease.
Jackson is encouraged by others wanting to grow their own food beyond the pandemic. “Once people understand the basic principles of soil nutrients, sunlight and adequate amounts of water and how to farm in a smaller setting, they are surprised at how easy it can be,” he said.
Dougherty County was hit hard with COVID-19 deaths early in the pandemic. As of May 22nd, over 700 boxes of produce and 430 hot meals have been delivered to those in need by Flint River Fresh.
After the coroner of his city was featured in Time Magazine, much-needed relief arrived from local businesses to help Jackson continue providing fresh, organic food to his neighbors in need.
From coast to coast, Americans of all ages are organizing and mobilizing to help each other bring meals to their tables.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
When Jackie Caplan, a high school junior in Santa Barbara, CA learned her good friend, Danny Goldberg launched a grocery delivery service for neighborhood seniors she was eager to help. “His father is an ER doctor on the front lines every day. When our high school closed, Danny was concerned for those most at risk having to shelter in place,” Jackie told Tarbell.
She and other local teens joined Danny in operating Zoomers to Boomers, referring to the specific generations of teens and seniors. “Danny has a great sense of humor and was just throwing names around at first and Zoomers to Boomers (ZTB) stuck. The seniors loved the name too,” Jackie added.
Jackie’s family was placed under mandatory three-week quarantine in March after her sister, whose roommate had tested positive for COVID-19 returned from Italy.
“Having experienced the quarantine gave me a sense of how the elderly population must be feeling. Being unable to leave home and feeling lonely and isolated, it hit home in a real personal way,” she said.
Jackie serves on the board of ZTB as the VP of communications and client services. She ensures the quality of every order, helps to onboard new cities and team leaders and is working to partner with local food banks.
“We have over 300 passionate volunteers and all of us are in high school. That’s the part the boomers really marvel at. When the orders are delivered, I receive the same responses of endless appreciation over and over again,” Jackie added.
As of early June, ZTB has served over 4,000 boomers and expanded to 26 cities nationwide. “We’ll definitely be continuing our service for a while and are working on long term plans to keep helping seniors after the pandemic ends,” Jackie said.
Embracing Pioneer Roots
The planting of Victory Gardens made a comeback after Americans were impacted by the declining food supply chain.
During WWll, Victory Gardens grew 40% of our nation’s produce and vegetables were harvested from backyards and vacant land. Americans are learning what to plant according to their climate as they embrace their pioneer roots again.
A desire to return to baking caused yeast and flour shortages. “The quarantine gave me a real sense of urgency to feel more self-sufficient,” Kathy, a home baker, told Tarbell.
Although she spent most of her life on farms and has been an avid gardener for years, Kathy strayed from certain baking projects.
The pandemic sparked a renewed curiosity about the vast array of health benefits found in fermented foods, leading her to tackle her first authentic sourdough starter which takes up to a week to tend and feed.
Then, the starter yields bread, pancakes, muffins and dinner rolls for her family. “It’s fun and relaxing baking with my grandkids and teaching them where our food comes from. We need to know what’s in our food and depend less on the government,” Kathy said.
We have been told we need to accept our new normal. But, should we?
This pandemic has given us an opportunity to reflect on how we can move forward and do better. We have seen the worst while also being offered a chance to find solutions. Is there still time?
As we transition into a post-pandemic world, we consider some of our individual choices and their impact on our food supply and agriculture. Should we eat less meat? How can we further reduce our carbon footprint? Are we able to sustain sacrifices we have made to help ease the burden on our environment? Will we fight for government policy changes and vote?
With all that has been laid bare during the pandemic, from the fragile food supply to the plight of migrant farmworkers to the disregard for the most vulnerable among us, we realize we still have a choice. Now more than ever, when we see injustices having to do with race, food insecurity, healthcare, the environment, or ANY injustice, Americans must remember change can ignite with one person speaking up loudly. Your voice matters in the conversation.