This is the fourth of a special four-part series about how COVID-19 is transforming local food systems—farmers markets, local farms, community and backyard gardens, and food equity.
As we head into six-plus months of stay-at-home orders, many of us have adjusted to new routines, all the while worrying or wondering about the next changes coming our way—from loss of unemployment benefits and school re-openings to when we’ll be able to safely spend time with friends and family, or board an airplane without anxiety.
How you get meals on the table every day has most likely changed—affected by shortages that go beyond toilet paper, as well as a desire to cut back on shopping trips out of safety concerns, or to avoid stores altogether through options that existed before COVID-19. These include ordering groceries online, joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program, or visiting your local farmers market more often, complete now with handwashing stations and other safety protocols. Perhaps you’ve started or expanded a backyard garden. If you live in a hurricane, flood, or earthquake-prone area, you may have had emergency food on hand at the start of the pandemic.
As many of us have become painfully aware, the pandemic has exposed what was previously much less visible: longtime racial and social inequities, overcrowded food processing plants putting workers at risk of COVID-19 infection, dairies dumping milk they can’t process, and meat plants having to dispose of animals they can’t process and sell to shuttered restaurants and schools. While some people have had the time to master sourdough bread baking as they shelter in place, thousands of families with limited resources have been spending hours in lines of cars waiting to pick up donated boxes of food at overwhelmed food banks across the country.
You might have been better prepared for the pandemic if you’ve been a member of a food buying club through your church or some other group, getting your groceries delivered every week or two by a food distributor. Pandemic Pantry is a new one with 100-plus members, started in West Philadelphia by a woman who chooses to remain anonymous but says she often thought that her professional experience in the wholesale food market would double as an insurance policy in troubled times. “I always thought that, if the s*** hit the fan, at least I know who grows my food and where I could get it for me and my neighbors,” she says.
It’s hard to know what to make of all the changes in such a short period of time, but Danielle Nierenberg, cofounder and president of Food Tank (The Think Tank for Food), a highly respected nonprofit working to reform the food system, said in a recent webinar on building food security in insecure times, “Agriculture needed to be revolutionized prepandemic and we cannot return to the way things were…there are some tremendous opportunities for change now.”
Food Tank’s vision and mission? “We’re building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. We aim to educate, inspire, advocate, and create change. We spotlight and support environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and create networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.”
Even in areas with robust local farms, people have seen the need for a more resilient food supply in case of emergencies such as the current pandemic. Rural Jefferson County, Washington, recently formed a Food Resilience Task Force to try to connect local food systems with the public utility district for improved access to food in the county.
Many of us who are not employed as essential workers wonder how we can make a difference in or beyond our community. Some of us are volunteering at food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, community gardens, and other community support organizations. People are finding or creating thousands of opportunities to give a helping hand or write a check. “Feeling Powerless About Coronavirus? Join a Mutual-Aid Network,” an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on March 23, 2020, describes how four young women, friends who were self-isolating in Boston, opened a blank Google document online, began brainstorming, and in a week had created 83 neighborhood pods, enlisted 120 neighborhood leaders, and taken in 700 donations to help elderly neighbors, college students, and others with needs, concerns, and questions.
Mutual-aid groups of all kinds have popped up across the country, and not just in large cities. In Corvallis, Oregon, the college town where I live, several young women started It’s On US (IOU) to feed exhausted essential workers and their families (and later on, anyone in need of a meal, no questions asked). In the process, they have kept some 30 local restaurants afloat preparing take-out meals to give away—all paid for by donations that reached $100,000 by July, with a goal of getting to $205,000. Local restaurants commit to preparing a set number of community meals on a set date, then dates and pick-up locations are posted on IOU’s website.
Probably no US industry has been harder hit than restaurants, with 10 million jobs lost and huge losses for the farms and food processors that supply them as well as schools. Celebrity chef José Andrés was praised as “a lesson of leadership in crisis” in a special issue of Time magazine in March with his photo on the cover. He quickly put his World Central Kitchen operation to work, feeding people who had been quarantined on cruise ships. Since then, he has kept thousands of restaurant workers at work though the coronavirus crisis and protest movement.
Andrés is far from alone in his large-scale humanitarian efforts. Bakers Against Racism, started by three chefs, raised $1.9 million for Black Lives Matter chapters and other groups working for racial justice with a global online bake sale in June. A group of bartenders in Los Angeles started NO US WITHOUT YOU! to provide weekly food packages for undocumented restaurant workers.
Some people are choosing to support farms and racial justice by buying from Black and Brown-owned farms. Black-owned farms represent less than 2 percent of all farms in the US today, compared to 1920, when the number was 14 percent. And while Latinx people make up about 83 percent of field workers in the US, they own only about 3 percent of American farms. You can find a directory of Black-owned farms online. One such farm, Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, has a sliding-scale CSA program and an online store and is known for its education programs and its book, Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman.
In North Carolina, Raleigh, Charlotte, and several other cities have Black farmers markets (see our featured photo at the top of the post, from the Raleigh market). In Portland, Oregon, the new Come Thru Market is a twice-a-month BIPOC-led and -focused market, with up to 20 vendors selling products ranging from tribal-caught fish to Creole-inspired prepared food.
So, how do you figure out where to put your time and money to help others? You may be weary from an excess of screen time, but online is where to go to learn about the needs and opportunities related to farmers markets, food banks, mutual-aid networks, school meal programs, SNAP, and other government programs. Visit Civil Eats, The Counter, and Food Tank for local and national food system stories. Yes! magazine offers solution-focused journalism with good reporting on food and mutual-aid networks. Facebook can be a mine of information, too.
We’d love to hear your stories about what’s inspired you in these recent months as an observer or contributor in your community, or as a recipient of support that made a difference to you. Leave a comment on this post so others can see, or email us directly at email@example.com.
About the author: Martha Wagner is a Corvallis, Oregon-based food and health writer and passionate advocate for sustainable living, wellness, and organic agriculture.
Photo credits: Top image: The Black Farmers Market NC, photo by Samantha Everette; Central Texas Food Bank: photo by Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo; Danielle Nierenberg, courtesy of Food Tank; It’s On Us pictures: El Patron staff, photo by Elizabeth Jones, and Lupe Mendoza, photo by Liz Moreno; T-shirts, courtesy of Bakers Against Racism; Farming While Black book cover, courtesy of Soul Fire Farm; No US Without You poster, courtesy of No US Without You; and Come Thru Market photos, courtesy of Come Thru Market.