We Must Fix Our Food System to Withstand Disasters

Workers Process Onions at Bland Farms in Glennville GA

USDA photo by Preston Keres

This pandemic has been an eye-opener on many fronts. It has exposed our personal resilience, the true leadership of some of our state governors, our dependence on rigorous science to inform effective policy making, the grit of our healthcare workers, and our ability to band together in times of struggle. However, the pandemic has also shone a light on the fragility of not only our medical system, but the broken U.S. food system as well.

This emergency has shown that the U.S. food system is far more tenuous than most of us realized. The concentration and consolidation of food production is unsustainable. The exploitation of workers along the chain from small farmers to field and factory workers to food service workers is cruel. Consumers are confronted by rising costs of housing and healthcare competing with cheap food and the opportunity costs of efficiently managing the food they bring home to prepare.

Our food supply comes largely from megacorporations across the globe; disruptions are widely felt and impossible to plan for in advance. For example, tomatoes are one of the world’s most consumed vegetables. In winter, nearly all of US produced fresh tomatoes come from Florida where both production and yield have been declining over the last two decades. Instead, imports of tomatoes from Mexico have more than doubled since 2000. Changes in demand for these products cannot be quickly absorbed to change how many tomatoes would be planted. Even food production in the US is concentrated in a few parts of the country where a natural disaster, including those more common because of climate change, could uproot large swaths of our food supply. 

Food production not only depends on a stable weather system; market fluctuations make it difficult for small farmers and ranchers to remain connected to a stable buyer. When supply chains are disrupted a lot of food goes to waste. When food is wasted, we also waste all of the water, land, energy, and resources that go into producing that food. Restaurants, universities, and event centers that closed without notice may have food in their coolers without a customer in sight for weeks to come and orders that they suddenly need not fill. Farmers are leaving more food in fields (or dumping milk) because they can’t find a reliable buyer or the cost of labor is higher than the price that will be paid by the alternative market or the food is not packaged for consumer retail. Not only are supply chains complicated and multi-leveled, the food procured for institutional food service is different in type and quality than food moving through retail grocery or direct to consumer. 

Much of the food on our tables is picked by undocumented immigrants or migrant farm laborers who are dependent on job-specific visas that were rife with exploitation even before the global pandemic struck. Food processing jobs, especially in meat packaging and slaughterhouses, are some of the most dangerous factory jobs in the country. It is deeply unjust that these workers so essential to our society are not extended decent worker protections.  

Food service and grocery workers also face unsustainable financial conditions that may be exacerbated under a nation-wide health crisis. Most are not paid a living wage, have no paid sick time, have no employer-sponsored health insurance, and see unpredictable work hours from one week to the next. These folks are seeing one of two scenarios: either their workplace is the  essential service in a time when our health professionals are recommending decreased interpersonal contact or they have been laid off because their employer has shuttered its doors. When shelter-in-place orders are lifted across the nation, there will be a considerable number of small businesses that won’t reopen.

When times are tough - as was the case for the 36 million people who faced food insecurity last year while the economy was at its peak - many of us will turn to a local food pantry to make ends meet. These hunger-relief agencies are perpetually under-resourced as they depend on charitable giving and continuous volunteer labor. Both of these resources have dwindled as people are asked to shelter at home and not attend their volunteer shift and as the market crashes taking philanthropic dollars with it.

Perhaps most visible, another weak point in the food system is consumers. We are emotionally reactionary about food. Food is often a source of comfort as well as providing for our nutritional needs. As consumers have turned to hoarding food and consumables, the cracks in our food system have widened. Many of the reasons for inefficiencies in our food supply chain are rooted in consumer preferences including perfectly shaped produce, and a focus on fresh, fast, and abundant options. Furthermore, too many households don’t have reliable access to or means to acquire good food. 

The question on many people’s minds is “when will things go back to normal?” But should it when it comes to our food? Our hope is that this disruption of normalcy will give us an opportunity to rethink and redesign some of the failures of our food system that are leading to hunger and environmental degradation. A more sustainable food system requires better stewardship of the resources that go into producing our food, taking care of those who work in food industries, as well as recognizing food’s role in nourishing society. 

Here are 4 things we need to fix so that our food system can withstand the next disaster:

Value food for its true cost.

The true cost of food includes paying food service workers, food processing workers, farmers, and farmworkers a decent wage with benefits to take care of their health. It means valuing food and all of the resources that go into our food like the land, water, and energy that produces, processes, cools and transports it to our plates. Valuing food inherently builds stability and flexibility into the food system as we expand cosmetic expectations, make use of root to leaf and snout to tail, and recognize the seasonal nature of food availability and options. 

Recognize food as a basic right.

When we see food as a basic human right and focus on food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture, we take a holistic view of the food system, ensuring no single part of the chain has outsized power. Instead the regenerative model is based in food democracy, matching sustainability priorities with how food is produced and procured. Recognizing food as a basic right ensures that folks don’t need to choose between affording food, health, and housing.

Invest in local and regional food systems.

Stronger links between regional foodsheds and institutional food buyers (like schools, food banks, and health providers) will both ensure that food producers have markets and communities have food. In addition, shorter supply chains that circulate money in local economies will help communities survive periods of turmoil.

Build out the social safety net to protect folks who are most impacted by disaster.

When disaster strikes, some folks will be on the frontlines; our society needs a social safety net that enables them to rebound. Food pantries can’t be expected to absorb the increased need. During the stimulus response, we have seen inventive policies to help impacted farmers and workers during this time of uncertainty, but they need to become permanent to shore up the food system before the next disaster.

About the Authors

Andrea Spacht Collins

Sustainable Food Systems Specialist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
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