The new coronavirus is gnawing at Americans in the pit of their stomachs.
And, for many, those stomachs are empty.
It’s not that there isn’t enough food to go around, though it may have seemed that way last week in San Antonio, Texas. In a scene emblematic of the struggles of millions of American families suddenly living without a paycheck, cars lined up dozens deep, bringing traffic on a freeway leading to a large food bank to a standstill.
In Peabody, Massachusetts, and in many cities around the nation, store shelves and freezers are empty.
At the same time, gallons and bushels of food and milk were thrown away elsewhere like garbage.
There’s plenty of food, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has assured Americans.
So why does it come down to this one frustrating moment for Peabody resident Kim Weisensee, who stood in line and went through the hassle that’s now added to routine trips to the grocery store, only to find the chicken — and every other meat item — had sold out?
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So much for trying to stay out of the public as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus, Weisensee said in a written message to Patch after we asked how Americans are coping with what is suddenly a food crisis.
“Can’t blame people for going out more,” Weisensee said. “[They] have to go out more often because they can’t find what they wanted to buy the first time they went out. Your regular Joe has to feed kids.”
The reason Weisensee and others aren’t finding mealtime staples in their local grocery stores starts with the American farmer, who operates within a highly industrialized, highly concentrated food production system that was efficiently humming along until the coronavirus crisis hit.
The behemoth $1 trillion food and agriculture industry didn’t grind completely to a halt, but enough gears were knocked out of alignment by the sudden jolt that rebuilding the engine and getting everything running smoothly again will take some time.
Cows Can’t Be Switched Off
Farmers in Wisconsin and other dairy producing states can’t switch off cows like production lines on a factory floor, even when a downward adjustment is needed in response to dried-up demand for milk and cheese by restaurants and schools. Cows still need to be milked twice a day, and dairy farmers — who contribute $38 billion to the economy every year — are watching profits swirl down the drain with what is suddenly a surplus of milk being poured down sewers.
Fruit and vegetable growers on both coasts in a similar plight are turning once-green furrows of lettuce and other greens into compost. Ranchers in the West are weighing the cost of extra corn they fed fat steers ready a month ago for a market subdued by restaurant and other closings.
And in Iowa and other places, after a spike in coronavirus illnesses at meat plants critical to large chunks of the U.S. pork supply, pig farmers are agonizing over a decision that is nothing short of mortifying:
Is there any point in raising the pigs they’re contracted to deliver to packing plants in six months, or should they cut their losses and kill them now?
“Hogs are backing up on farms with nowhere to go, leaving farmers with tragic choices to make,” Howard Roth, the president of the National Pork Producers Council, recently said in a statement. “Dairy producers can dump milk. Fruit and vegetable growers can dump produce. But hog farmers have nowhere to move their hogs.”
Pork and beef prices have surged at the grocery store; but in a commodity market merciless in choosing winners and losers, the prices farmers receive for live animals are in a freefall. The price of lean hogs has dropped $7.13 since the pandemic began.
The hurt is piling up throughout the $23.4 billion pork industry.
Farm industry experts say the supply chain blip is only temporary, but feeding out pigs and beef steers until they’re ready for market — or if there will be a market when they’re fattened and ready for the butcher — is a gamble not all farmers are willing to make.
“I think we have a strong food supply system, and it’s diversified enough to provide the products to consumers,” Olga Isengildina Massa, an associate professor of agriculture and applied economics at Virginia Tech, told The Hill.
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“Obviously, it has a lot of hiccups right now,” she said, “but we’re working through the system.”
When one link in the supply chain snaps, the jolt is felt across agriculture’s related industries.
Almost no one’s going to restaurants, except for the occasional curbside pickup. Restaurants are using only a smidgen of the food they did during the robust days of date nights, family celebrations and dinner with friends. That means less freight for truckers to move.
And even then, the journey of fruit and vegetables from fields to the grocery store has always been a carefully timed operation so the produce can last a week or so in the consumer’s refrigerator.
The produce is perishable and can’t be stockpiled in warehouses like toilet paper
Some food businesses, though, are operating normally for the most part.
Aurora, Illinois-based Oberweis Dairy Farm buys raw milk from several states, mostly in the Midwest, then sells it pasteurized and homogenized to grocery stores and uses it in a home-delivery business that is making a comeback as consumers stay put.
Other than the loss of some ice cream sales to restaurants, the coronavirus has had minimal effect, Joe Oberweis, the president and CEO of the family business, told Patch. The biggest glitch he’s faced is being shorted by third-party vendors on orders for things such as eggs, juice, cheese, yogurt and snacks that make home delivery more attractive to customers.
The larger dairy industry around him is in chaos, though.
“Everybody’s drowning,” he said. “When you think about it, the whole way we operate is completely different. All of our systems and processes worked, and then everything changed.”
Fourth-generation farmer Jack Vessey waited as long as he could before turning 350 acres of romaine lettuce, a crop worth about $1.46 million, into compost. He’d already prematurely sent about 300 seasonal workers home, even as bright green furrows of lettuce were ready for harvest.
“You put your blood, sweat and tears into a crop,” Vessey, president of Holtville, California-based Vessey and Co. Inc., told Reuters. “To just disc it into the ground: It’s painful.”
Analysts say romaine lettuce could become the next hot-ticket item in grocery stores, and the decisions made by farmers as hurt by the coronavirus crisis as anyone will make it harder for people far removed from the farm, such as Kathy Rea in Milford, Connecticut, to stay home.
Food Waste Amid Food Scarcity
Rea is disabled, more vulnerable to the virus than most people, and she admits she has no business running around Milford looking for groceries in the middle of a pandemic.
But she has to stretch her food benefits as late into the month as she can, not always successfully, and make each withdrawal count frugally and nutritionally. Now, to get even basic staples, she and her daughter have to “store hop,” Rea wrote in a message to Patch, and even then they go home without most of what she needs.
Getting enough of the right things to eat at a price she can afford was a problem for Rea and some other Americans — 11.5 percent of the U.S. population — considered “food insecure” even before the coronavirus pandemic plunged the U.S. economy into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In five weeks, one in six Americans — 26 million people — have lost their jobs and filed unemployment claims.
They include low-wage hospitality industry workers who were the first to lose their jobs and are turning to food banks and other resources to feed their families. And, for the first time, millions of freelancers, contractors, gig workers and self-employed people can now file for unemployment last week..
“This has been a really devastating shock for a lot of families and small businesses,” Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, told The Associated Press. “It is beyond their control and no fault of their own.”
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Depending on how long the crisis lasts and how deeply unemployment cuts into Americans’ livelihoods, another 17.1 million people could join those already worrying about how to feed their families, according to Feeding America, which extends emergency food lifelines into local communities through a network of food banks, food pantries and meal programs.
Feeding America is telling its local partners to prepare for an onslaught in demand. Pledge drives to support local food banks are omnipresent across America.
Before the pandemic, supermarkets and food companies donated surplus perishable food items to food banks rather than dump them in the landfill.
The donations are falling off as grocery stores are having trouble keeping their own shelves stocked. In its recent coronavirus stimulus package, Congress approved $450 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help move more food that would have gone to restaurants to food banks instead.
Getting more of the fresh fruits and vegetables currently dying on the vine and rotting in farm fields into the hands of the people who need it most is challenging on multiple fronts — logistically, legally and practically.
But it’s not impossible.
Nonprofit groups are trying to fill the gap with new approaches.
Dana Gunders, the executive director of the food rescue group ReFED, told National Geographic the group works “directly with a number of innovative and nimble food-rescue organizations [that are] trying to capture more prepared food, finding ways to use enabling technology to connect donors and recipients a little more efficiently.”
Holding On — For Now
Dawn Marie Hall hasn’t had to visit Temecula, California, food banks.
She got her last paycheck April 3.
It took two weeks for her unemployment benefits to kick in. Hall had to get something she’d never had before — a debit card — and was disconnected several times from heavy phone volume before she finally got through to a live person. The customer service representative was “wonderfully helpful,” Hall says, but it’s going to be another week or 10 days before the card comes in the mail.
“That’s 21-24 days running my household without income,” she said in a written message. “Plus no stimulus check yet because I never gave the IRS my banking information.”
In spite of it, Hall considers herself fortunate.
She’ll be OK, she said, but she frets about other single parents who may not have the same level of support.
Number Of Hungry New Yorkers Could Soar
Some of those people undoubtedly live in New York City, hit hard by the virus, the job losses it wrought and, now, the potential for widespread hunger.
About 1.2 people already faced the daily worry about having enough to eat, including one in five children. Mayor Bill de Blasio warned Thursday their ranks could swell by another 2 million hungry New Yorkers. About 475,000 New York City residents, many of them the sole breadwinner for their families, have lost their jobs in the coronavirus crisis.
The desperation is palpable in places with high minority populations already living on the fringe. Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, a family physician who opened a food pantry in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago, told CBS News a line that wrapped around the block shows her “people are really on the fringe.”
“When we talk about the 50 percent of people living paycheck to paycheck, they are standing [here] right now,” Figueroa said. “These are people that cannot afford to have the kids home from school and feed them.”
Globally, famine of “biblical proportions” could push another 13 million people to the brink of starvation in a matter of months, World Food Programme leader David Beasle warned the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.
The United States isn’t among the 13 mostly war-torn, impoverished countries that could see death from starvation more than double, exceeding the number of people dying from the coronavirus itself. But as the world’s top food exporter, the U.S. farm industry will be called on to help while ironing out the kinks in the domestic food delivery system.
The disruptions to the food system in America — main meals that don’t have chicken in Kim Weisensee’s kitchen in Massachusetts or Kathy Rea’s in Connecticut — are minor in comparison.
But the situation is still serious for people such as Lisa Solimine of Woburn, Massachusetts.
She’s worried about keeping her son and mother safe from the coronavirus and making sure there’s enough food on the table.
Solimine isn’t sure how long she’ll be able to manage.
They’re down to a single paycheck.
And Solimine, like most Americans, can’t be sure how long the societal upheaval wrought by the coronavirus will last.