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

Our problems are exacerbated by the crisis

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 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.

Most importantly, our food system is largely controlled by market forces, the “invisible hand” that allocates food and other resources in ways to maintain business profitability rather than ensure good nutrition or eliminate food insecurity and hunger. This approach externalizes — shifts to the public and taxpayers — the burdens of diet-related disease, the leading cause of premature death and illness around the nation, and the costs of food insecurity. A market-dominated food system also fails to make environmental protection, reducing climate change, or protecting food workers’ priorities, imposing additional costs on society as a whole.

Emergencies like COVID-19 highlight some of these costs. Market-driven innovations, for example, usually benefit most those who can afford to use the new apps, higher-priced products, or home-delivery charges, widening gaps in food access and nutritional well-being between the better off and poor. Similarly, market innovations are most accessible where the highest prices can be charged, diminishing their capacity to benefit those who face the highest health risks.

Few of the nation’s regional food systems have made increasing the supply of regionally grown food a priority. Some regions have made advances in helping their farmers build their share of regional food purchases but if global supply chains were to be disrupted by COVID or some other crisis, it would take years to significantly increase the food grown regionally. Yet such regional self-sufficiency can protect a population’s food access during national and global emergencies and also contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The affordability of our national food supply depends heavily on an underpaid workforce that enjoys few benefits. The epidemic has shown how dependent we are on the workers who grow, sell, transport, prepare, and deliver our food but also how vulnerable they are. The limited increases in paid sick leave in the recently passed national COVID funding bill and the increases in the minimum wage to $15 an hour in many states are steps in the right direction. A food system that can survive shocks will require a decently paid workforce with adequate health insurance, sick leave, and livable wages.

Another problem is the inadequate linkages between our food system and our health care system. Food is a leading cause of ill health and the health-care system regularly serves those at the highest risk of food insecurity and dietary diseases, yet only recently have the systems begun to build more stable linkages. Connecting people with food problems to immediate and long-term food assistance, building nutrition and health education into all food and health programs, and making prevention of nutritional problems a priority within primary health care are all steps that could help the nation to better address COVID and subsequent health problems.

Finally, COVID shows the importance of maintaining and expanding deteriorating safety net programs such as SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid. For the past three years, the Trump administration has attacked, cut back, and stigmatized users of these programs. As the national economy deteriorates, these programs help people survive and weather some of the hardships, but it will take years to restore the damage imposed by recent changes. The erosion of unemployment compensation and the growth of the gig economy and its benefit-free jobs further damage the protections created over the last century. The epidemic shows the wisdom of having robust safety nets that can quickly help people to meet and then overcome emerging threats to well-being.

Every society must find the right balance between market freedom and government responsibility. Across place and time, societies have made different choices about where to draw this line, suggesting that the mantra that there is no alternative to the current system is patently false. COVID-19 presents new threats to our food system and to every other sector of our society. Finding ways to use this crisis to recalibrate this balance to meet the current and future threats is an urgent priority.

Nicholas Freudenberg is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health. His forthcoming book is “At What Cost: Modern Capitalism and the Future of Health” from Oxford University Press.

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