The COVID-19 crisis makes clear that our current food system is dangerously brittle. More than ever before, we need to invest in a food system that is resilient, local and strongly interwoven. As shoppers encounter empty shelves, we suddenly realize the full extent of reliance on corporate grocery stores, which in turn rely on distribution companies that source from only a few, large food providers.
This pandemic simultaneously exposes the economic precariousness of many small and mid-sized farmers, whose crucial, life-giving labor is vastly undervalued: Farmers and farm workers, along with people working in food service are often paid hourly, without reliable health coverage or paid sick leave. This crisis reveals that, for many children, school meals offer the sole source of a hot meal in their day. Many of our seniors live in relative isolation, and are extremely vulnerable and food insecure. In short, the coronavirus exposes the fault lines in our current food system, and calls to us with a profound sense of urgency to get to work building a different one. We must shorten supply chains, support small and mid-sized farmers as the backbone of our food communities, and deepen relationships directly between farmers and eaters, so that all may be fed.
In times of crisis, we can shrink or we can expand. We can rise up to meet the challenges of our time, or we can retreat in fear.
As trying, anxiety-provoking and very immediately challenging as the COVID-19 crisis is — most intensely for already economically disadvantaged and marginalized communities — we are collectively awakening a sense of shared awareness and social action that has been dormant for a very long time. That’s good news because we will need to be wide awake to successfully address climate change, to push back on the insidious creep of global tyranny, and to build local, thriving economies and cultures that will withstand this — and future — challenges.
First, we need to come together in the short term to mitigate the very real harm that will affect small and mid-scale farmers and food providers. Here in Vermont, there has already been a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and it’s likely that in the near future there will be even further restrictions on movement. Major farmers’ markets have decided to close because of the virus (although on Friday, the governor thoughtfully designated markets as essential). However, people must still eat! Our farmers have food available, and they need to sell that food to stay in business. I invite you to think of farmers’ markets as you might grocery stores and not social events. Farm stands offer the same important food access if you’re in an area with access to one. CSA shares offer yet another important direct-to-consumer model, strengthening local supply chains and making food and income more secure for farmers and eaters — a win-win. If you’ve been debating the moment to commit to such a relationship, there’s never been a better time. Direct-to-you food services like Farmers to You that eliminate distributors and support local, organic farmers and food providers are another good option. And our state’s many food co-ops, along with independently owned natural food stores, source much more directly from farmers and food providers. These stores often maintain contracts with several distribution companies and have proven more resilient and stocked than large grocery chains.
Diversity and relationships strengthen resilience. We cannot abandon farmers who rely on direct sales and expect that they’ll be able to survive to the other side of this crisis. On the contrary, this moment should call upon us with renewed clarity to make choices that support these critical food providers year-round.
Long term, we need to take this crisis as a moment to evaluate, learn, and commit to investing in a food system that is local, relational and strong. We need each other. If we are to weather the coming storms of climate instability, erratic markets and global unrest, we need to nurture our connections and grow a food system that is strongly interwoven. The hopeful reality is that shorter supply chains, healthy, thriving small and mid -sized farms, and viable small-town economies will in fact help to fight these very threats themselves. Building an emergency-ready food system will lessen the chance of these emergencies occurring at all. A thriving, resilient regional food system will make us healthier and more connected.
As the wise agricultural activist Dr. Vandana Shiva said, “The uncertainty of our time is no reason to be certain about hopelessness.”
Let us take this moment to affirm our collective path and move boldly toward the food system and future we so need.
Grace Oedel is executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.