By Melissa D. Ho, World Wildlife Fund; John Piotti, American Farmland Trust; and Joel Berg, Hunger Free America
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed weaknesses in our nation’s food system—something so fundamental that most people take it for granted. Most of us don’t think about how and where we get our food. We simply expect supermarkets to be fully stocked, and we hope those in need will be able to turn to food banks and federal food assistance programs for help. But as schools and businesses shuttered their doors, more than 38 million people have since lost their jobs, and one in three U.S children are now going hungry, making the gaps in the system evident.
These gaps have always existed—for too long we have prioritized low-cost and most efficient over fair-priced, local and regional—but now the gaps are magnified. Dairy farms have dumped thousands of gallons of milk; perishable fruits and vegetables have been plowed over or left to rot; and fishermen can’t sell their catch. All this while food banks and social service agencies face unprecedented demand, and child hunger is five times the rate it was before this crisis. Our food system isn’t just cracked; it’s broken.
We’re thankful that government programs are being expanded, while volunteers, religious groups, chefs, not-for-profits, private donors and aid organizations are stepping in, trying to get food to the people who need it and supporting our local and regional producers. But these patchwork solutions aren’t nearly enough in the short-term, or sustainable in the long-term.
Many organizations, ours included, are turning to solutions that address the root causes. With additional public support and leadership from the private and public sectors, we have the potential to emerge from this crisis stronger. Here are four actions that need to be taken.
First, we must act immediately to protect farmers and ranchers, especially small- and medium-sized producers of specialty crops, livestock and dairy. The Farmer Relief Fund and state and local emergency mini-grant programs are providing some immediate assistance, but much more is needed. As part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funded largely through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), the USDA announced that it will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers, plus an additional $3 billion in purchases of agriculture products, including meat, dairy and produce. The USDA must act quickly to distribute this funding to impacted farmers and ranchers who need help the most, prioritizing small- and medium-sized operators and those most negatively affected from the closure of direct to market sales.
Second, we need to increase income, food purchasing power and safety nets for Americans in poverty. There should be immediate revisions in the eligibility restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and future incentives for the purchase of fresh, locally grown foods. States and cities should allow for farmers markets to operate in low-income communities with safe social distancing, and there should be future investment in new markets to provide these communities with affordable, nutritious food. Federal and state regulations must also be relaxed so idling assets can be mobilized and food can be redirected not wasted. For thousands of school districts, more flexibility will allow for efficient execution of emergency feeding plans, which may need to continue through the summer. USDA should be taking additional steps to ensure farmers and ranchers can expand existing partnerships to respond to urgent needs.
Third, we must build resilience and sustainability in our food system. We need to rethink how and where we grow, process, distribute and access healthy and affordable food. We need to develop business models and financial tools for farmers to produce more food for their local and regional markets so that supply chains will be adaptable and resilient to future shocks. We need to protect farmland and water resources. Future farm bills and policies should include a safety net for smaller, more diversified producers and specialty crop farmers; reform commodity, price support and insurance programs to level the playing field across all commodities; and incorporate incentives for conservation and regenerative and sustainable practices for all producers. Policies must also place fundamental value on farmland, not just for growing food but for safeguarding the natural resources that provide habitat for wildlife, clean water and resilience to extreme weather.
Finally, in all these measures we must value people—those who produce our food and those who consume it. It’s important that once we’re on the other side of this pandemic we don’t become complacent and relegate these issues and communities to the back burner. As a society, we have the means, motive and opportunity. Our response now will help shape the resilient and just food system we so desperately need.