The pandemic has caused drastic changes in almost all aspects of our lives. For the food industry, the pandemic has operated as a catalyst, forcing people to think more critically about the sources of their food and what a shortage might mean. With many questioning the safety of crowded supermarkets in a pandemic, delivery services for groceries have soared. For others, the pandemic has been a time to re-evaluate food choices; There has been a shift towards local produce and away from grocery store chains.
The pandemic has brought about a consumer shift towards supporting local food and agriculture through concepts such as CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. With CSA boxes, community members buy subscriptions to farms in exchange for a weekly portion of the farm’s harvest. This allows farms to survive based on a relationship-driven culture within the community.
To those within and passionate about the farming industry, these conversations are not new. Michael Dimock is the President of Roots of Change, a project of the Public Health Institute. Dimock’s podcast “Flipping the Table” tackles questions about the future of farming, food justice, and important industry changes amongst other socially conscious topics.
In an episode of the podcast, which aired on the 9th of April 2020, Dimock sat down with a few farmers from all over California to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on local farms and the lessons this pandemic has taught. Dimock spoke with Anya Fernald of Belcampo Meats, Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, and Chris Sayer of Petty Ranch.
These four individuals, in between them, possess farms that stretch from Northern to Southern California providing produce, meats, and wine to restaurants and community subscribers. Most of these farmers supply restaurants with their products, which make up a significant portion of their income. Initially, the conversation focussed on the absence felt by the closing of restaurants due to the pandemic.
Fernald commented that before Covid-19, restaurants made up 90% of her clientele. Since the closing of indoor eating, this figure is down to 50%. Sayer of Petty Ranch, who grows lemons and avocados, has had to hold off on harvesting because there is no guarantee that his usual restaurants will be purchasing their typical stock. Redmond of Full Belly Farm agreed that especially in California, where farm-to-table dining is a major attraction, the restaurant industry cannot survive in the long-term without the support of farmers and consumers.
While there have been many challenging obstacles during this rocky time, all of the speakers agreed that there have been some meaningful changes that have taken root. They all seemed to share a common notion that people are beginning to think more deeply about food.
While eating locally may in many cases be more of an investment than buying imported goods or foods with long shelf lives, the value behind the price of local food far exceeds the alternative. Anya Fernald shared that she has seen her customer base grow and has built relationships that she will have forever, “It’s an opportunity to share my value proposition with my customers” she adds, “we’re going to come out of this a hell of a lot stronger.”
Thinking back to March at the beginning of the pandemic crisis, Don Cameron reflects on the changes people have taken note of thus far, saying, “They ran out of toilet paper, they ran out of paper products…but they didn’t run out of food.” He added, “I think consumers are going to realize, it does matter where your food comes from and who grows it.”
In her closing remarks, Judith Redmond addressed the fact that this moment isn’t forever. While we need restaurants back, and there is a lot of work to do to ensure security for local farmers, Redmond remains hopeful. She explains how she has seen farmers and customers coming together in new ways, community members buying into CSA, and consumers expressing gratitude to farmers for access to fresh food. She added, “It could be that we think of [the pandemic] as a time to pull together as a food community.”
Many businesses and organizations have had to find creative solutions during this time, expanding their reach and building new partnerships to help support the community. These organizations include F.E.E.D. Sonoma, based in Sonoma County, CA. F.E.E.D is a farmer and employee-owned food-hub and cooperative that brings the community and farmers together to distribute produce across the region.
Before the pandemic, F.E.E.D was supplying food to restaurants in the Bay Area, now they are distributing food directly to community members by supplying the infrastructure most small farms do not have. The program has gained incredible traction since it started earlier this year, from filling 90 bin orders in the first week, to 800 in the third, the support continues to grow. “In reality, it’s always been the strategy to engage directly with the public and create a revenue stream where society can invest in the building of the infrastructure,” F.E.E.D co-founder Tim Paige told Sonoma West in April. By investing in local farming, the community is investing in sustainable practices and the future of food.
I spoke with Julie Golden of Mendocino County, CA, who owns her own farm-driven restaurant and wine-shop amongst her other extensive involvement with local food and agriculture. Golden’s restaurant, The Golden Pig, has transitioned to a take-out only model since the pandemic and is struggling to navigate their new ways of operation. Golden said that sales are down 50% from this time last year and the yoyo effect of California’s loosening and reinstating restrictions has proven exceedingly difficult to manage.
Golden has seized this opportunity to bring farmers and consumers together, “In April I started a new business to sell directly to consumers to move the beef, pork and poultry through the system. My restaurant sales have dramatically dropped, so my supply of beef, pork, chicken and eggs has grown. I’ve signed up with Barn2Door, a shopping cart created for small farmers to sell directly to consumers.”
Golden has been a long time advocate for sustainable food practices and eating locally. When asked why local food and sustainability in agriculture is of paramount importance, Golden responded, “I’d like to leave a piece of the Earth healthier after I farm it than before I began…Healthy soil, keeps topsoil, which prevents desertification, which provides nutrients to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables. Which in turn, nourish animals and humans and keeps the water that passes through the soil clean and pure.”
In addition to her own farming practices, Golden continues to use her restaurant to support small farms and build connections between farmers and the community. Golden agreed that this pandemic has brought major problems within the food industry to light, “The disruption of the food supply has been enormous, and anyone that cares to look at it will be upset and dismayed. I do hope citizens begin to engage more honestly with their food supply and support local farming.”
Golden noted that this pandemic is altering the ways people engage with their food, and there exists the potential for not only awareness through education but support and action to create more sustainability in the food industry.
The flexibility of smaller and more regional business has proved to be an invaluable strength during this pandemic. PBS reporter Melanie Saltzman found a common theme of frustration amongst consumers who used to grocery shop a few times a week. In cities like New York, it’s almost impossible to shop for two weeks of groceries at one time, creating a necessity for home delivery. With the surge of demand for delivery, many companies like Amazon and Freshdirect struggled to meet the needs of customers, forcing shoppers to find alternative options.
These alternative options are local and regional farms that prove reliable when large industrial food supply chains and operations are disrupted. Companies like Walden Local Meat based in Vermont, have seen incredible growth in the last few months, doubling their orders from 10,000 to more than 20,000. Walden Local is a direct-to-consumer meat company that delivers to subscribers all over New England and New York.
The meat industry has shown its numerous weaknesses throughout the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. In an article titled “The Sickness in Our Food Supply” author and food expert Michael Pollan illuminates the many ways that meat distribution and production in the US has failed.
Pollan points out that four companies process more than 80% of beef in the US, and while the large-scale production of meat usually runs efficiently, when faced with a crisis such as the one we are in now, it has no option but to shut down. Meat-plants have been forced to euthanize millions of animals because of the closures of slaughterhouses from Covid-19 outbreaks. These animals are going to waste instead of being redistributed to meet the demands of food banks.
Not only are slaughterhouses hot spots for the spreading of illness, workers are forced to work in unimaginable conditions. These essential workers are treated as disposable and suffer at the hands of corporate greed. Pollan notes, “Farmworkers, too, live and work in close proximity, many of them undocumented immigrants crammed into temporary quarters on farms. Lacking benefits like sick pay, not to mention health insurance, they often have no choice but to work even when infected.” These issues have existed for a long time but now are gaining attention because of the reaching impact that these closures have had on supply chains.
Pollan writes, “Covid-19 has brutally exposed the risks that accompany such a system. There will always be a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience (not to mention ethics); the food industry opted for the former, and we are now paying the price.”
Pollan proposes that the solution is investing in local and regional slaughterhouses rather than a monopolized mode of strained over-production. He notes, “Meat would probably be more expensive, but the redundancy would render the system more resilient, making breakdowns in the national supply chain unlikely.”
Common critiques against local food systems are based on financial concerns, local produce often tends to be more expensive. Based on the economies of scale it’s cheaper to buy from companies whose production costs are lower but doing so comes with its own set of issues. Pollan writes, “It’s long been understood that an industrial food system built upon a foundation of commodity crops like corn and soybeans leads to a diet dominated by meat and highly processed food.” This Western diet created by industrial food systems directly leads to health problems such as obesity, hypertension, and type-2 diabetes, all of which directly increase vulnerability to Covid-19.
The local food movement is not just about supporting farmers. It is about supporting communities and building resilient local economies that can withstand various crises and unexpected obstacles. Eating local is about reimagining what goes into our bodies and keeps us healthy. Knowing where food comes from forces us to care about our environment and practice sustainability. Michael Pollan has been a long time advocate for local food systems because he believes that while they may be more costly at the forefront, we have to consider how we measure these costs. When we invest in good food, we are paying for our health, for our environment, and for the betterment of our communities.
The rise we have seen in Community Supported Agriculture and local food movements has led to consumer reprioritization towards sourcing and quality, this change suggests the possibility of a greater shift, towards conscious consumption. While the pandemic has had innumerable negative impacts, people are beginning to awaken to the strengths and potential of the local food movement.