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When farmers plow under crops in a nation of bounty, the tragedy of COVID-19 becomes all the more vivid

We can’t ignore the potential risks to our food supply at a time when no one knows how long the pandemic will affect our economy.

Grocery shoppers line up to get into Trader Joe’s in Evanston on March 20, shortly after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Victor Hilitski/Sun-Times

America has a food problem.

When, during this pandemic, we see dairy farmers dump milk into ditches and when we see vegetable farmers plow their crops back into the soil, it is tragically obvious that major agricultural markets have dried up.

It is an indication, as well, that our nation faces an unsettling new challenge in getting food to where it is needed most — one that the federal government needs to tackle immediately.

Chicago knows a lot about food. At our height in the last century, we shipped more than 80% of the nation’s meat supply from processing plants at the city’s stockyards. To this day, Illinois remains a key agricultural state that exports food globally.

But the systems needed to efficiently move food to market, especially perishables, take years to develop. Private companies are struggling to redesign them during the coronavirus pandemic, especially at a time when some of their own workers have fallen ill or are afraid to come to work.

We’re not facing anything like history’s worst famines. As food historian and author Cynthia Clampitt tells us, people in the past often relied on a single crop. If that failed, they had little or nothing. Americans still have a wide array of food to choose from. If we can’t get pork, we can eat something else. Most food experts don’t see an immediate threat to food supplies.

The waiting game

But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the potential risks to our food supply at a time when no one knows how long the pandemic will affect our economy. Big meat-processing companies have temporarily closed or reduced production at plants in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Iowa. Smithfield Foods announced on Sunday it would shutter a processing plant indefinitely in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that produces more than 5 percent of the nation’s pork. That places the nation’s meat supply “perilously close” to a shortage, in the words of one company executive.

Meanwhile, farmers are destroying beans, squash, onion, cabbage and other crops instead of sending them to market. Hundreds of thousands of eggs are being destroyed instead of being used to grow chickens for meat. Worldwide, nations are halting or limiting exports of wheat, legumes and other food.

What we’re eating is different now

Part of the problem is that, as a result of the pandemic, food needs have suddenly changed. People staying at home eat fewer vegetables, for example, than they do at restaurants. No one eats onion rings at home. Food producers are suddenly weighed down with excess supply they can’t sell.

Another part of the problem is the systems that typically moved food from farms and ultimately to schools, restaurants and other now-shuttered large customers are not easy to redesign. People shopping at grocery stores don’t want the 50-pound bags of flour and produce that commercial customers buy. Food producers who sold to large commercial users may not have contracts with supermarkets. Much of the food can’t be donated to food banks because of their limited storage capacity.

A third problem is that the transportation systems that bring food to market are under stress. Less food is shipped by air as airlines cancel flights, reducing cargo capacity. Ships that move food internationally face lockdowns at many ports. According to one report, delays in food coming from Chinese ports could cause apple juice shortages in the United States because China supplies two-thirds of American apple juice. Other food may be affected as well. And farmers may become hesitant to plant perishable crops that must be hauled long distances if they are not confident shipping companies can get them to market.

A shortage of workers

A fourth problem is the uncertain path of the pandemic. Already, food-producing companies and grocery stores are losing workers to sickness or fears of the coronavirus. Watermelon and blueberry growers in Florida worry about rotting crops because of a lack of migrant laborers, mostly Mexicans. If the number of cases of COVID-19 does not sharply ebb, smaller operations may go out of business and remaining grocery stores might have to resort to rationing, which already is happening with some products.

Besides the threat of declining food availability, the cost of food may become a serious problem. When supplies go down, prices go up, which hits people who can least afford it the most. Even in good times, many households suffer from food insecurity. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report said 11.1% U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2018.

Chicago Sun-Times. SOURCE: USDA

During the Depression, the federal government created the food stamp program to get agricultural surpluses from farmers to people who were going hungry. Today, the problems are different, but the federal government should still be looking for ways to ensure that farmers keep producing crops and that food is reliably shipped to where it is needed.

Limits of federal SNAP benefits

Consider the pandemic-era limitations of SNAP benefits, the successor to food stamps. SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy food online at newly created virtual farmers’ markets, making it harder for poorer people to get fresh food, according to Block Club Chicago. That’s a ripe place for a sensible policy change.

On Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he hopes the federal government will step in with price supports or a farm bill to shore up the nation’s food supply. He also said he has asked food manufacturers across the country to donate food to school districts for distribution to students.

The coronavirus has created enormous uncertainties, and we acknowledge the broken food supply chain isn’t easy to fix.

But in a nation of great agricultural bounty, good and fresh food should still be available. Let’s hope Washington heeds Pritzker’s advice.

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