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COVID-19 is Showing us Where our Food System is Failing

Let's imagine a better food future.

Sitting down with my morning cup of coffee, I opened my news app and read the headline, “U.S. Food Supply Chain Is Strained as Virus Spreads” in The New York Times. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen this headline earlier; regardless, my stomach dropped. Since I adopted the profession as a farmer I’ve been studying our food system, specifically the food supply chain and it is incredibly complex, bulky and unforgiving. I’m motivated by the issues that affect my community, my family, my home, our safety, health, and wellbeing; The Climate Crisis, the devastating effects of the SAD (Standard American Diet) and the fact that 30% of food goes to waste while neighbors within a few miles of my home reside in food deserts and don’t have access to real, nourishing food.

Three weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown and going to the grocery store feels like a suicide mission while eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the snacks in between at home demands a stocked pantry. Article after article is rolling in about food banks with shortages on pantry staples while large farms are dumping fresh food and plowing vegetables back into the dirt. Hear this: In 2018, *Americans spent $678 billion dollars on food from full service and fast-food restaurants; this includes cafeterias in large offices, the hospitality industry, and schools. That same year, Americans spent $627 billion dollars at grocery stores and warehouse clubs. So now we find a huge disconnect between what is being produced and what we actually eat in our homes. What am I going to go with a case of tasteless tomatoes grown to be sliced and served on fast-food hamburgers? Or a 5LB bag of shredded tasteless, rubbery mozzarella cheese? You see, it isn’t just the packaging it comes in but the actual food doesn’t fit in on a grocery shelf because given the option to make conscious choices in what we eat, we wouldn’t choose what we’ve been fed within these systems. These choices represent the worst of the climate crisis, the SAD, and the food deserts where consumers’ affordable option is a fast food hamburger with factory-farmed meat that’s been fed corn considered unedible for human consumption and the slice of those tasteless, pale tomatoes.

I’m the co-founder of an indoor hydroponic farm. We take used shipping containers and transform them into farms that grow different varieties of lettuce which we sell directly to restaurants and familiar faces at the local farmers market. Until suddenly, everything changed; the restaurants closed without notice and the farmer’s market was shut down. We’re nimble with lots of different skills so we threw up an online store and offered ‘care packages’ for delivery. We shifted gears quickly and sold out, even increased our revenue. The shut down marked the beginning of a massive shift happening to our very complex food system. I felt it coming weeks before I read the article. You see, we are sort of an outlier from this food system that is failing us in this time of crisis. This is what local farms do; they grow food in community, with community and for community. Where people live, work, and play. The modern urban farming movement produces food that supports the health and wellbeing of the planet and people. The AgTech movement enables innovation to grow beyond traditional farming methods and address the obstacles we face as regional farmers. Regenerative farming is transforming underutilized land into thriving farms growing a variety of foods while enhancing the environment at the same time.

It’s no surprise that CSAs are trending and restaurants are transforming into mom and pop shops selling essentials and locally grown produce their chefs have been curating for diners prior to COVID-19. Heck, the farmers market went online and the demand is off the charts!

Just yesterday we spent hours commuting in traffic to and from work, running carpools, running errands and running to get to the gym. Now, we are hunkered down at home and many of us find ourselves with the energy and creativity to cook, bake and nurture our relationship with food. At this moment, these local farms feel like a lifeline while the world feels dangerous and unstable. But something bigger is happening; the food system is changing and here is our opportunity to demand something better; a robust, dynamic localized food system. We are independent of the complexities related to transporting food all over the world and maintain a connection to the community where we grow and live. This allows us to pivot when necessary to support the needs and desires of the people we serve. It is more important than ever to support these local farms and food producers to ensure that they thrive and grow as we realize a new food system.


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