The COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the actions taken to protect public health highlights the fragility and interconnectedness of many complex systems. The food system is no exception. Disrupted logistics, including all inputs and outputs, labor, distribution, and all associated activity is the principal cause of the current challenges faced by the food system, as highlighted by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Food system planning in Massachusetts, beginning with the first statewide food plan in 1974 and extending through the 2015 Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, has consistently underscored the need for adaptability and resilience. The current crisis is testing how well public and private stakeholders have done in working to meet that need, and an assessment and analysis of the food system’s response and recovery will highlight where we have succeeded and where more efforts and investment are needed to weather future disruptions.
While we are still in the early stages of this crisis, there are some clear signs of resiliency.
Many local farmers have shifted to online sales, remote delivery, boxed pick up, and shifts in CSA distribution processes to adapt to physical distancing requirements. Some have begun to use on-line ordering and sales platforms, and others are offering curbside pick up, launching virtual farmers markets, and developing other creative solutions.
Farmers’ retail sales are booming, made possible because of the public's understanding that our local food supply is safe.
Farmers have quickly implemented food, worker, and consumer safety practices, aided by guidance from our state’s Departments of Health and Agricultural Resources.
Shuttered businesses are repurposing their infrastructure to meet demand, such as restaurants and shared-use kitchens pivoting to prepare meals for low-income families and front line workers.
Hundreds of schools have stepped up, not only preparing food for the hundreds of thousands of children who rely on school meals, but developing innovative ways to deliver those meals to those who need them.
State, federal, and philanthropic supports have been quickly mobilized to increase access to food and to mitigate financial stresses due to labor disruptions.
And a number of larger challenges of particular concern have also been revealed.
Communities that are already poorly served by the food system, particularly communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities are being disproportionately harmed by the crisis, losing jobs or working jobs that are particularly high-risk and facing reduced access to food.
Local farmers who rely on wholesale markets to distribute their products have faced significant disruptions with the shuttering of restaurant and institutional buyers. While some have pivoted to selling directly to consumers or are trying to supply local retailers, the local food distribution system is struggling to adapt quickly enough to meet the challenge. These foods are not getting on supermarket shelves or to hunger relief organizations as quickly and efficiently as needed.
Commercial and retail food supply chains have remained substantially segregated and there is no infrastructure in place to redirect food from the institutional supply chain to the retail supply chain, especially those foods with short shelf lives.
The disparity in food labeling and packaging requirements between wholesale and retail chains hamper re-purposing of food.
Our current food system, including “just in time delivery” and limited storage, especially at retail outlets, has resulted in shortages at grocery stores and limits on purchase quantities.
Hunger relief organizations are stretched beyond their limits, without enough food to meet growing demand.
Food is being dumped at the farm gate. Nationally, producers have begun destroying perishable crops and large-scale meat and poultry producers are or are thinking about destroying replacement stock. Dairy producers face prices well under the costs of production, if they can even sell their milk at all. An estimated 7 percent of all milk produced the week of April 5 was dumped, approximately 3.7 million gallons each day.
Widespread disruption in the national meat processing/packing industry due to labor issues suggests shortages are to come.
Our local fisheries industry has been devastated with near 100% loss of sales while consumer and hunger relief organizations’ demand for protein increases. The impacts are likely to be long term.
Migrant farm workers, particularly those coming to the US seasonally through the H2A program are unavailable, leaving farm labor in short supply as the growing season ramps up. At the same time, hundreds of thousands food system workers particularly in the restaurant and institutional sectors have been laid off.
Shortages in personal protective equipment, sanitizing solutions, and labor are or soon will negatively impact our food system.
A pattern is clearly emerging: the local food system has proven adaptable and resilient where it is least controlled by national and global systems. Engagement and integration between local and broader food systems is necessary, but local food production, processing and distribution has the ability to be nimble and adjust as needed in ways that the larger systems can not. Support for the local food system that builds upon this resiliency and provides a far greater percentage of our food is clearly in order.
Adopted in 2015, the MA Local Food Action Plan calls for investments in infrastructure and technology to create safe and efficient food production and processing. It includes a focus on efficient and effective local food distribution, on ensuring consumers get the information they need to make informed choices, and for improvements to the regulatory environment in order to remove unnecessary obstacles and to introduce efficiencies for food system businesses. Many of these recommendations were reflective not only of immediate need, but also of proposals highlighted in previous planning efforts. And this crisis has revealed that our regulatory and policy environment is not fully up the task of adaptation. While some progress has been made since the completion of the Plan, many bills that would contribute to a more resilient food system are under consideration but have not become law and are now stalled due to the crisis.
The COVID-19 disruption demonstrates that a resilient food system must be able to simultaneously meet wholesale and retail needs (packaging type and size, labeling, storage, and delivery), pivot rapidly between them in response to disruption, increase efficiencies and cut costs, reduce environmental impacts, and increase food access to relieve hunger. To do so, increased capacity for direct retail of farm and fishery products, local processing, and investments in short- and long-term food storage are some key needs. Increased production must be supported as well, with greater investment in technical support and education from UMass Extension and other providers, expanded farmland protection efforts, and policies and regulations that recognize the value of local farms and fisheries.
These are not new lessons or new proposals. Decades of analysis and experience have led to repeated recommendations to increase Massachusetts’ local food processing and distribution infrastructure, yet many of those recommendations have not substantially been followed with the necessary investments and policy changes.
While dealing with immediate need is critical, this is also an important moment to consider longer-term, larger-scale solutions. One overarching challenge faced by the local food system is that the cost of production is rarely supported by the prices farmers and fishers are able to command for their products, because they must compete with the lower prices of the larger food system. While this is often explained as economies of scale, the larger food system does not account for external costs, such as offsetting pollution with a carbon tax, which creates systemic distortions to prices, supply, and demand. As a result, local production, processing, and distribution systems designed to be resilient have generally not been able to sustain themselves.
The MA Local Food Action Plan specifically calls for increased carbon and water quality credits and, recognizing the small size and close proximity of New England states, for establishing a regional carbon market. Bills that begin to address these issues have made progress in the legislature this session. The more quickly these bills can be improved and passed, the more quickly our local food system might begin to employ its creativity and strengths to make a more resilient and stable local food system.
The MA Local Food Action Plan offers recommendations in every sector that would increase our food system’s resilience. It urges preparation for disruption, engaging farmers and practitioners from all sectors of the food system in emergency preparedness planning, and including food system consideration in all state, regional, and municipal level economic and workforce development planning. As the Commonwealth begins to look toward recovery from this crisis, a review of the Plan and other recommendations is in order. This must include a robust engagement process with stakeholders from all parts of the food system to inform a refined set of priorities, to ensure that solutions are equitable and sustainable and result in a more resilient local food system.
The MA Food System and COVID-19