Increased risk of 'food insecurity' brought on by COVID-19

Posted Apr 22, 2020 by Karen Graham
The closing of the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Iowa has significant ramifications for U.S. food supply chains, according to experts. But closing processing plants is just one of five threats to our supply chain to be considered.
People line up at a food bank in Los Angeles
People line up at a food bank in Los Angeles
Frederic J. BROWN, AFP
According to the New York Times, the spread of the coronavirus through meat processing plants, warehouses, and grocery stores is expected to affect the manufacture. production and distribution of a number of products, from pork to yes, even toilet paper.
The American public is being reassured by experts that we probably don't need to worry about food running out - but at the same time, they tell us some foods might not be available all the time.
"I think we have a strong food supply system, and it’s diversified enough to provide the products to consumers,” said Olga Isengildina Massa, an associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech, reports The Hill.
"Obviously it has a lot of hiccups right now, but we’re working through the system,” she added. Hiccups? Let's look at five hiccups that are considered major challenges to the food supply chain.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits Triumph Foods pork processing facility April 28  2017. The...
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits Triumph Foods pork processing facility April 28, 2017. The facility houses 2,800 employees in St. Joseph, Mo.
U.S. Department of Agriculture / Preston Keres
Virus outbreaks at food plants
One vulnerable spot in the nation's food supply chain is our meat processing plants. Workers often have to stand in close proximity to other workers while preparing the meats that go to American consumers.
Just last week, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, shut down a pork processing plant that accounts for up to 5 percent of production after more than 500 of its workers were infected. Other meat processing plants have also been forced to close down - including Tysons Food, Cargill and JBS.
MarketWatch is reporting that after closing the Waterloo, Iowa meat processing plant on Wednesday, Tyson's chief executive Steve Stouffer said in a statement: "The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers. It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation's pork supply."
A migrant worker picks peaches on June 19  2014 at the Larriland Farm  Md. Migrant workers are used ...
A migrant worker picks peaches on June 19, 2014 at the Larriland Farm, Md. Migrant workers are used to help keep the farm going since there are less and less family members interested in working on the farm after high school and college.
U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos - SrA Dennis Sloan, USAF
Agricultural reliance on foreign workers
America's agricultural sector relies heavily on foreign workers to harvest crops. Just last year, this amounted to over 250,000 workers employed picking crops. The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted farmers and their workers in unexpected ways.
President Donald Trump's soon to be signed executive order barring new immigration will apply only to people seeking green cards. It will supposedly last 60 days and won't affect workers entering the country on a temporary basis, meaning agricultural workers.
The original announcement on immigration included seasonal farmworkers - and created a great deal of worry for farmers. But administration officials advised agricultural groups that seasonal farmworkers wouldn't be affected.
Dairy cows (Holsteins) being cooled by sprayers during hot summer to maintain milk production.
Dairy cows (Holsteins) being cooled by sprayers during hot summer to maintain milk production.
Bob Nichols, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The big mismatch in the supply chain
So far, during the coronavirus pandemic's spread in the U.S., about $5 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables have already gone to waste, according to the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), an industry trade group.
Earlier this month, it was reported that some dairies have been pouring thousands of gallons of milk down the drain.
This is because there has been a shift away from sending dairy products to restaurants and schools due to statewide lockdown.
This has created a logistical and packaging nightmare for plants that process milk, butter, and cheeses. Trucking companies are scrambling to find drivers because some have stopped driving out of fear of the virus.
The same thing is happening with farmers of fresh produce. Many are plowing under fields full of crops, even as long lines form at food banks across the nation. People cooking more of their own meals is also putting a strain on the food supply chain. With restaurants closed, families are learning to cook again, putting a strain on such pantry basics as flour, beans, and rice.
Volunteers pass out food items from a Feeding America food bank.
Volunteers pass out food items from a Feeding America food bank.
Sterling Communications (CC BY 2.0)
Growing food insecurity in America
Monica Hake, a senior research manager at Feeding America, a hunger-prevention group gives us a startling fact: Before the coronavirus outbreak came to our shores, there were an estimated 37 million people considered to be food insecure.
So far, over 20 million people have applied for unemployment benefits, which translates to a roughly 15 percent unemployment rate, up 11.5 points from before the pandemic, according to some economists. These numbers would increase the number of food-insecure people by 17.1 million.
And even though many school districts have developed innovative ways to feed children during the coronavirus outbreak who would normally get their meals during school hours, there are still challenges.
Crunch on delivery capacity
Practicing social distancing also has a major drawback - and that is getting your groceries delivered. This is not to say that people can't go to the grocery store, but for those who are fanatic in keeping their distance from others during this health crisis, it does present a problem.
This means that delivery dates and times are almost non-existent in many localities, and even "pick-up" times may have to be scheduled two or three days in advance.
The COVID-19 crisis has taken a toll on the nation's grocery stores, the employees, and the delivery companies that bring the groceries to your door. Many grocery stores have implemented new cleaning and social distancing guidelines and in many places are limiting the number of shoppers allowed in at a time.
Delivery and grocery store employees have a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus - and given the low pay and benefits often associated with the work, an increase in COVID-19 cases among workers could make the positions harder to fill, further impacting on the supply chain.
In summing the whole food supply chain problem into a nutshell, Christine McCracken, a meat industry analyst at Rabobank in New York, said: “You might not get what you want when you want it, Consumers like to have a lot of different choices, and the reality is in the short term, we just don’t have the labor to make that happen.”