This Pandemic Shows How We Can Improve the U.S. Food System

Our problems are exacerbated by the crisis

Heated Editors
Published in
5 min readMar 23, 2020


Photo: David Madison via Stone/Getty Images

By Nicholas Freudenberg

Like a blinding spotlight, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminates the resilience and weakness of the nation’s food system. For now, food activists, health professionals, and public officials are appropriately focused on meeting immediate needs and ensuring food access to all Americans. But the current crisis also offers an opportunity to analyze what the pandemic has taught us about our food system and how this and future crises may challenge the United States’ ability to feed its people.

For the last few years, many cities and states have begun to develop long-term food plans, making this the right time to ensure that these blueprints will help to nurture more resilient, equitable, and sustainable food systems.

First the good news: COVID-19 has sparked numerous innovative efforts to meet changing food needs:

  • As school systems shut down, school food programs around the country are distributing free meals outside school buildings and delivering food on school buses, enabling children and parents to pick up food to bring home.
  • Supermarkets are offering an hour or two of protected shopping for older, more vulnerable customers before opening their stores to all shoppers, thus helping to reduce transmission.
  • Restaurants and food delivery services are creating contactless delivery, where messengers leave food outside the door of customers and cashless transactions minimize contacts that can transmit infection.
  • Food businesses are hiring more workers to stock shelves and serve customers, creating new job opportunities for those laid off and helping to meet surging consumer demand for some products.

So far, the supply of food appears to be adequate to meet the need, and many basic elements of our food infrastructure appear to be intact. But the epidemic has also illuminated some deep problems facing our food system, problems that existed before COVID-19 but are exacerbated by the crisis. As the virus spreads and persists, these weaknesses may become more serious.

But the epidemic has also illuminated…