What needs to change in America’s food system

From paying workers a living wage to diversifying the supply chain, the coronavirus crisis has exposed fundamental problems with how food is produced and distributed in this country. We asked a group of leaders to explain what needs to change.

The novel coronavirus crisis has made it impossible to ignore the fundamental weaknesses of our system of food production and distribution — from a reliance on farm and restaurant workers who are underpaid and largely unprotected, to the fragility of a supply chain that is highly concentrated and centralized.

Highly efficient, this system evolved to fulfill expectations of endless choice, immediate service, high yields and low prices – but it has come at a cost. Now, the country is experiencing food shortages, massive food waste, and rising hunger, while food processing plants have become hotspots of Covid-19.  The crisis also has elevated conversations about how to solve these systemic problems. We asked a handful of people who work within the system, or who study it, what needs to change.
– Editors, Food & Environment Reporting Network

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms

We are all connected by food. During and after this Covid-19 crisis, the essential work that people throughout our country’s complex food supply chain do to keep Americans fed — from farm to processing facility to truck or train to store or restaurant and much more — needs to continue to be recognized. Too often, our conversations around food and agriculture focus only on the end product, or on perceived divides between stakeholders with seemingly opposing objectives. But food should bring people together.

At Perdue Farms, we’ve found that when we open a dialogue with people, whether that’s animal-welfare groups, environmental advocacy organizations, or others, we usually have more in common than we disagree about. I suspect that as the nation begins to recover psychologically, economically, and physically from this pandemic, we will have a rare opportunity as a society to explore areas of common ground. As we plan for this recovery, I challenge my own company and others in our industry to remain committed to supporting the communities in which we live and work.

I look forward to future collaborations with people who are dedicated to providing safe and good jobs, producing high-quality food, and protecting our communities and environmental quality. We all still have a lot left to achieve together.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, a fourth-generation, family-owned U.S. food and agricultural company.

Marion Nestle, author and professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, New York University.

If the current coronavirus crisis tells us one thing, it’s that people need a steady, reliable, adequate income to survive and that our current food system depends on vast numbers of people who do not have that: farmworkers, grocery store workers, packing plant workers, meatpacking workers, restaurant workers, delivery workers. To get us anywhere near an effectively sustainable food system — one that prevents hunger, promotes health, and protects the environment — we must reduce income inequality and pay people decently for the work they do. That’s the starting point for a much more fundamental transformation that recognizes food as a basic human right and food systems as means to promote stronger and more democratic societies.

Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, New York University and author of several books.

Saru Jayaraman, president, One Fair Wage.

With 13.5 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the U.S economy and also the lowest-paying. This is largely due to the subminimum wage for tipped workers, which is still $2.13 an hour at the federal level. A literal legacy of slavery, this subminimum wage has been a source of economic insecurity and sexual harassment for a largely female workforce of millions nationwide; now, with the Covid-19 crisis, it has become a source of destitution.

We estimate that at least 10 million service workers have lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis. These workers were already living “tip to mouth,” feeding their children off the whims of customers; now they have nothing. Many tipped workers and service workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance either because of their immigration status or the fact that their hours or longevity at their restaurant or place of work was not enough to qualify them for unemployment insurance. Even among those who are eligible, however, unemployment insurance in most states is calculated based on the subminimum wage for tipped workers (still $2.13 at the federal level) plus a rough calculation of workers’ tips. It has become abundantly clear that the subminimum wage never should have existed in the first place. For this reason, we are calling on Congress to provide relief to those restaurants who commit to One Fair Wage in 2021 — a full livable minimum wage with tips on top.

Saru Jayaraman, president, One Fair Wage, which seeks to ensure that all workers in America are paid at least the full minimum wage from their employers.

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.

After many decades of consolidation, our food system has become highly specialized and centralized. There are far fewer farms, processors, distributors, and retailers, and those that remain are, on average, much larger and tend to focus on a narrow range of range of products and services.

Under ordinary circumstances, this model makes the food system extremely efficient, capable of producing large amounts of food quickly and inexpensively. But when faced with a disruption — say, a global pandemic — this level of concentration can be a liability. With just a handful of operations dominating each step of the supply chain, an outbreak at just a single facility can affect the availability and price of food across the country. This has become a particularly significant issue for the meatpacking industry in recent weeks, as Covid-19 cases among workers have led more than a dozen plants to reduce or halt production. Already, farmers have seen livestock prices drop dramatically, and some have even been asked to cull animals that can’t be processed. In the short term, a dwindling supply has caused retail prices to rise, and in the longer term, meat shortages could be a very real possibility.

But concentration doesn’t just make our food system vulnerable to pandemics; it also makes it vulnerable to climate change, pests and crop disease, and foodborne illness. But the solution to all of these problems is the same: a more diverse food system. With more farms, processors, distributors, and retailers of more varied sizes and types, the temporary loss of single link would be a mild inconvenience rather than an industry-wide disturbance, and the food supply as a whole would be much stronger and more resilient.

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.

Matt Russell (left), executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light at his farm near Lacona, Iowa.

Nobody could see this coming? That’s not true. We know there have been moral (faith) and scientific (reason) voices clearly calling out this threat, the need to prepare, and strategies for dealing with and recovering from something like Covid-19. What is true is that powerful economic and political voices ignored the clear moral and scientific warnings and actually worked to undermine the authority of the warnings and of the solutions for a different, better outcome.

Agricultural systems are in a similar situation. Moral and scientific leaders are making clear statements about how our agricultural systems must change to avoid impending threats and to pursue different, better outcomes. The question in light of Covid-19 is, “Will new political and economic leadership in food and agriculture wrestle power away from the kind of leadership that has failed us on Covid-19?” If so, there is hope that we can build resilience to an impending crisis and invest in solutions grounded in moral and scientific imperatives.

We can build a movement grounded in the values of environmental justice and the solutions coming from farmers working with public-interest agricultural scientists. These moral and scientific solutions to agricultural systems can increase food security, improve nutrition, expand rural economic development, and introduce ecological services. Covid-19 is showing us the importance of public policy frameworks for dealing with systemic problems. And we’re seeing the staggering costs in life and economic collapse when political leadership undermines the warnings and the solutions for a different, better outcome.

—  Matt Russell, executive director, Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based group that works with farmers on sustainable agriculture solutions.

Greg Asbed, a founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Watermelon workers talk about la hora callada, or the quiet hour, the time between 1 and 4 p.m. when the day is at its hottest and the melons, their heaviest. All the boasting and chatter of the morning evaporate during that time, as workers concentrate only on surviving until the cool of the early evening arrives. A lot is learned about a person in those difficult hours. The weak complain and struggle with each melon they catch and throw; the true character of the crew, and each of its members, is revealed.

Like la hora callada in melons, this deadly pandemic has been a stress test for our country, revealing weakness at the top where leaders sought vainly to project strength, and laying bare the true character of our society. Nowhere is that more true than in the food industry, where we were forced to realize that food workers, men and women we have treated as expendable for generations — for centuries, really — were in fact essential. We called on them, like first responders, to continue working and risk their lives so that the rest of us could eat as we hunkered down in the safety of our homes.

If we are to be a truly great country we must learn from this crisis. For food industry workers, that means paying people what they are truly worth, treating them with the respect they deserve, and recognizing the invaluable contribution they make every day, not just during times of national crisis.

Greg Asbed, a founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which advocates for farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine.

As the full impacts of the coronavirus pandemic become evident, we clearly must increase the resiliency of our food system. Our short-term focus is keeping farms in business, but if we want to ensure long-term sustainability, we’ll use this as an opportunity.

Farming has always been unpredictable, but this crisis has exposed a fragility in distribution, and a lack of equity in both access and production. We’re seeing an increase in extreme culling coupled with widespread product shortages; a farm system that is largely dependent on H-2A workers; few protections for farm workers; and devastating crop waste.

The Trump administration asserts that the food supply chain is healthy, but I’m hearing differently from those on the ground. Food banks in my district are competing with retailers to purchase food, and struggling to get it into the state. This highlights the need for a more localized supply chain. In Maine, we’ve seen a consumer shift towards local food producers. These farms now have the opportunity to demonstrate their importance and the quality of their products to a group of people who may not have otherwise been customers.

In the end, I believe the coronavirus pandemic can encourage a more sustainable food supply via production and distribution incentives. This shift would offer greater access for consumers, and revenue for farms via outlets for direct-to-market sales like farmers’ markets and CSAs, while at the same time helping to provide more locally sourced products for traditional options such as supermarkets.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s first district. 

Hugo Mogollon, executive director of FreshFarm.

We live in a food system that works efficiently but depends on large producers, industrial processing plants, and a long value chain to deliver abundant and cheap food to grocery stores. What we are learning is that this model is not very resilient to disruption, especially one created by the novel coronavirus.

We see closures of some of the country’s biggest meat-processing plants across the country, because workers are getting sick. That type of concentration and risk is evident all over our current food system. Our food system also has been unjust by design. We are now able to see that the wellbeing of food workers is directly related to our wellbeing. Protecting them, eliminating inequalities, will be essential to have a healthier food system in the future.

At the same time, we are seeing the strength of shorter value chains, supported by well-paid and protected workers. A decentralized food system with small farms and multiple distribution points will reduce the risks of future disruptions to the food supply.

As for food service, I believe we will go back to eating at restaurants and cafeterias once the risk of this disease is reduced. Still, this pandemic has forced food-service providers to innovate, pivoting to food distribution and offering food access to people in need. We will need to see if this could become an emergency response system during future catastrophic events.

Hugo Mogollon, executive director of FreshFarm, a Washington, D.C.-based farmers market, food access and educational organization.

Lead image: A grain truck departs the silo at a feed mill. Photo by John West.

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a non-profit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.