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Broken Links in the Chain

By Amanda Lynn Barker

Let’s talk about food. In late April, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is the largest meatpacking union in the United States, reported that 20 of its workers have passed from COVID 19, and an additional 5000 workers are either hospitalized or showing symptoms. These illnesses and deaths, alongside pandemic-era plant closures, have reduced pork capacity by 25%, and beef capacity by 10 percent. We are in the early stages of what I anticipate will be widespread and long term disruptions in our food supply.

In response to the decreased meat production capacity, the White House invoked the Defense Production Act to try to get a handle on the continued availability of meat. The Defense Production Act is modeled from the War Powers Act of 1941, and provides the president with authority through executive order to direct private companies to prioritize orders for national defense purposes. The May 2020 order was invoked to try to keep the processing plants open, defining them as “critical infrastructure.” In a nation that consumes on average 273 pounds of meat for each person per year, we might be hurting and hungry if another more deadly wave of virus hits in the fall as predicted.

Our food supply chains are weak and overly complex. Food is manufactured, packaged, transported, and sold across expansive distances in a system contingent on a stable network and reliable cash flow. Meat processing is highly consolidated. For example, three companies produce approximately 70% of the beef market. If one of these plants closes, the US loses 10 million daily servings of beef. The consumer is already feeling this meat shortage. Approximately one in every five Wendy’s fast food chains has run out of meat, and Kroger, along with other supermarkets, has started to limit the amount of meat one shopper can purchase. I guess we did learn something from the toilet paper fiasco after all.

Some people prefer to buy their meat directly from butchers, not a he supermarket. The butchers are reporting even higher price increases and even less meat available. In butchers across Ohio, beef prices have gone up 50 percent; pork prices have increased 35 percent; and chicken is about 25 percent more expensive. Although the economy is beginning to “re-open” and even if meat production is considered critical infrastructure, none of us can predict how an uncertain future will impact the production and distribution of meat, let alone other food commodities.

Our United States food markets have enjoyed gluttonous privilege, but now trade walls are going up and governments are worried about protecting their own food supplies. Russia is the world’s largest wheat producer, and has limited grain exports at least through June. Egypt has currently stopped all exports of legumes. Argentina, the largest exporter of soybean products, closed the roads in major soybean production areas. Border closures have limited the movement of people,creating global farm labor shortages. Food is currently rotting in fields, while millions of migrant workers are stranded.

The US has taken some measures to maintain its domestic food production, but are they enough considering the level of uncertainty? For example, agricultural laborers are defined as “essential workers” and are allowed to continue traveling and working. In California, migrant farm laborers from Mexico carry a new document from the Department of Homeland Security that allows them to cross the border for work. However, vegetable fields, meat processing plants, and shipping centers are labor-intensive industries with little automation. If the virus moves in waves and continues to spread through communities, how will our domestic food production and distribution supply chain adjust to a varied and on-going decline in our workforce? We rely on global resources to feed us, and our domestic farming infrastructure isn’t designed for widespread farm-to- table meals for most people.

It seems that the feds are starting to anticipate a food supply issue in the US. In early May, Donald Trump announced that the government would purchase $3 billion worth of meat, dairy, and produce, and allocate that food specifically for charity kitchens and food lines. This money may or may not be part of a $19 billion relief plan through the Department of Agriculture. The White House never clarified or expanded on its announcement.

We don’t know how or in what way the pandemic will escalate, or continue to disrupt the economy. We don’t know if the crisis will continue to impact food production and supply. But what we do know is that approximately 25% of Cincinnatians live in what is called a food desert. Food deserts are communities without access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food options. Food deserts are concentrated in high poverty neighborhoods, and Cincinnati has 19 USDA-designated food deserts. For people who live in food deserts, acquiring food is more than its affordability. Shopping is difficult and inconvenient on public transportation or on foot, which leads to more reliance on the unhealthy options available at the closer and more accessible corner stores. Food security was a challenge even before the pandemic, and these areas will experience an increased struggle in the event of any future scarcity.

Expanding the already developed network of community gardens is one solution. The Community Garden Program is an outreach effort of the Civic Garden Center, located near Walnut Hills. The Community Garden Program administers the Community Garden Development Training curriculum to provide technical assistance and horticulture education to low and moderate income neighborhoods. Walnut Hills, with a poverty level hovering around 50%, has been a designated food desert since Kroger left in 2017. It does have a very active community garden, and produce is sold as a pay-what-you-can pop-up market to neighborhood residents in the former Kroger parking lot. Avondale is another food desert. It used to have an Aldi’s, but it closed in 2007. However, Avondale has five neighborhood gardens. Community gardens not only provide direct and affordable access to fresh, healthy food, but also connect people to a creative outlet in a non-competitive environment. With effective planning and communication, the community gardens can operate through the summer and into the fall, while also implementing safe social distancing practices.

The community gardens won’t feed everyone though, and especially not through the winter. If the supply chain continues to disintegrate, and if another wave of virus sweeps through this fall, we need to anticipate food shortage alongside another stay-at-home order. With preparation though, we can get through it. Another solution is to set aside fresh fruit and vegetables to freeze while they are available this summer. That might mean reducing the amount of processed frozen food that might be stored in the freezer. We can’t all fit a deep freezer in our living spaces. The more space in the freezer that is designated to ice cream and pizza, the less that is available for strawberries, pureed squash, bell peppers, and onions.

Also maybe purchase one or two extra items for storage during each trip to the market. Any dry goods or canned items will store well. My studio apartment doesn’t have a pantry, but I have a nine gallon plastic bin with interlocking handles to store my food. This protects the food from any bugs, and also keeps it out of sight so that I’m not tempted to eat it if the other food gets low.

Finally, if you are someone who will start to miss the meat, perhaps begin curbing the intake now. Coffee, butter, eggs, sugar, meat, and fish were the main foods rationed during the Great Depression. I personally anticipate having to increase my food budget by about 30% between October 2020, and April 2021, and I will need to adjust my butter and cheese consumption accordingly. Protein powder is still available on the market, and a spoonful of that added to water in the morning will help through the transition.

Maybe this planning will be for nothing. Maybe the economy will reopen, the infection numbers will dwindle and no one else will get sick, and we will transform our factory farms into meditative health spas for people recovering from capitalist poverty. If the future unfolds in a different direction, let’s be the ones contentedly stirring our polenta in January, not scrambling over a $5 packet of oatmeal and flailing around at the end of a broken link in the chain.

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