"These are strange times” is an often heard refrain these days, and it certainly applies to our food system right now. Crops are being turned under or rotting in the fields, milk is being poured down dairy drains, and feedlot animals are being euthanized for lack of a processor. Meanwhile, hungry people are encountering bare grocery shelves and longer than ever lines at food pantries. How can we be destroying food while we’re seeing record numbers of unemployment and hunger?
This juxtaposition of abundance and need is not new to our society, but the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our food system and perhaps its fundamental problem: distribution. The roots of the problems now visible in our food system are not unique to this moment in time, only especially evident due to the unique stresses of our circumstances. Given this unusual situation, we’re offered a unique perspective to view and address systemic deficiencies, recognize the good being done, and consider our own role and power in our greater food network. Before we can consider steps toward change, it’s worth taking a frank look at the situation and why we might be here.
In the past several decades, we have seen a considerable consolidation of the food industry. Small farm-centric communities and a diverse network of smaller food players have given way to an industrialized food system with concentrated ownership, global interest, long supply chains, and maximized profits for those large enough to reach the economies of scale. Most of this has been done with efficiency in mind, but it has come at a cost of overall resilience. Despite maximizing efficiency and producing record quantities, the system falls short in the face of our distribution problems and rising food insecurity.
The food industrial complex has struggled to divert products as typical supply streams have shifted along with consumer demand. Restaurants, where Americans formerly spent roughly half of their food budget, have closed and struggled to reopen. This has placed a remarkable burden on grocery stores to try to meet customers' needs. Food banks have done well to help bear increased strain and demand, and more Americans are turning to food pantries for help for the first time amidst record unemployment. Meanwhile, many industrial food producers are having to destroy product with their processing and distribution hindered by the pandemic and unable to adjust to the shifted demand. While everyone in the industry is facing hurdles and looking for solutions, some local producers are finding ways to get food into the hands of people that need it.
Throughout this crisis, local members of the food community have found solutions. Some have made creative changes to their business models, while other have stayed their course and increased productivity to meet the new demand. Here in Fort Worth, farmers markers have been full and some vendors have reported their best weeks of sales and increased demand for CSAs. Restaurants and entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative solutions, with restaurants selling to-go boxes of farmer's fare, chefs creating pop-up meals, and entrepreneurs canning, pickling, and fermenting excess produce from farms. The resiliency and success of these purveyors highlights the benefits and importance of building up our local food system.
While these times are strange, they offer everyone an opportunity to reevaluate our food networks and our roles in them. No matter our occupation, background, or diet, we all exist in our food system as consumers, and shifting consumption from a passive act to an engaged one can have a powerful effect. Wendell Berry championed re-establishing eating as an agricultural act, and he summed it up well with, "Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth." So, honoring Mr. Berry's good sense and good writing, it's worth suggesting a few things anyone can do in this chaotic moment to tip the scales in favor of a robust local food system.
1. Buy local! Buying local can help ensure your food’s quality, reduces its carbon footprint, and you can know where your dollars are going.
2. Grow your own food. Participate in food production, whether it be in your own yard, a community garden, or lending a hand at a local farm.
3. Prepare your own food. You can ensure your own quality, add your own value, learn about produce, nourish yourself and others, and inspire the culinary arts in your own home.
4. Learn about our local food system. Explore the economy of it, the people involved, the variety of foods produced, their seasonality, and all of its history.
5. Participate in the decision-making process. Learn about laws and policies that affect this system, vote, and voice your opinion to legislators. A good starting point could be getting involved with the Tarrant County Food Policy Council.
6. Share it. Now is the time share your food, your time, your gifts, or your passion with a neighbor, especially if they’re struggling in this crisis.Focusing on local food systems alone won’t fix our nation’s problems with food insecurity, but it can help nurture resiliency into a larger and more diverse network. Together, through small intentional acts, we can build a stronger local food community.