Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States of America, people across the country have been heavily impacted economically, socially, and physically. COVID-19 has exposed a multitude of problems outside of only the public health system. The pandemic has exasperated hunger and food insecurity across the country and exposed gross inefficiencies in the food supply chain system.
Hunger relief non-profit Feeding America estimates that 45 million Americans may have experienced food insecurity last year as the global health crisis unraveled last year. This figure represents one in seven Americans and a 29% year-over-year increase from the amount of food-insecure Americans in 2019 (1). The reactiveness from not only our local and federal governments but also the private sector has been crucial in combating food challenges. Even though economic relief and food assistance have stepped up to the occasion, there are still steps that can be taken to improve the food system so that it can be resilient and sustainable when faced with future health or economic crises.
To think about how our food system in America can improve, we need to understand how our past and current system works. The food system in America is complex and multidimensional, encapsulating farmers, distributors, producers, retailers, and everyday consumers.
Over the past 50 years, the number of hired farm workers and all land in farms have decreased sharply, signaling that farms have become a lot more centralized and efficient (2). Rob Larew, the president of the National Farmers Union stated that distributors and retailers have decreased, and those remaining tend to have a narrower range of focus on products and services (3). This specialized focus makes the food system efficient, but when faced with a significant disruption like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this type of specialization within the system can become a liability. For example, an estimate of 6 to 8% of all COVID-19 cases in America through July 2020 were associated with meat-processor plants due to employees working at close quarters while also facing increased demand for certain products, specifically shelf-stable products (4).
Everyday consumers in America are also faced with food shortages, especially in food deserts. According to the Food Empowerment Project, food deserts are areas where there is a shortage of grocery stores, restricting the area’s residents ability to access affordable and healthy food options. Food deserts are generally located within rural areas, black and brown communities, and low-income communities in general. The presence of food deserts and the lack of healthy foods not only contributes to the rise in health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases, but also causes food insecurity within those communities (5). And COVID-19 only exasperates an individual’s access to healthy food in communities with food deserts.
Amid the challenges faced by the current food system, there are still innovative ways that our food system can improve to better address hunger and food insecurity within America. COVID-19 has proven that a large centralized supply chain network can be a liability. A homogenous food chain comes with increased risks and complications, but a vision of a food system with a shorter decentralized supply system is possible. With a more localized and grassroots approach to the food system, a new system can not only offer greater access for consumers, but also improve the well-being of farm workers. When faced with hardships like COVID-19, a diverse supply chain can ensure that a shutdown of one production site will not cause a shortage in supply. There will be other farm and production sites available to provide food. At the same time, a local production of food can contribute to the rise of local retailers, addressing the problems of food deserts (3). Focusing on an increasingly localized supply chain is one such solution for the food system that can counter future challenges.