The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic nearly a year ago exposed the cracks in our hierarchical food production and processing system. When the world first shut down last March, the supply chain was disrupted as outbreaks occurred and processing factories and restaurants were closed. Shelves were emptied at grocery stores and shortages of commonplace ingredients were prevalent. Fruit rotted away on trees and milk was dumped into the soil.
This is no new phenomenon. Since the beginning of industrialization, food waste has been rampant.
In our capitalistic society, everything has a value, and our adherence to this ideology was crystal clear this past year. Edible food is regularly discarded at every step along the production process, from farmers planting in excess, to grocery stores throwing out food that has reached its ‘sell-by’ date. If market conditions aren’t right — that is, if the price of the produce is lower than that of the cost of transportation and labor, or the demand for a specific product falls unexpectedly — farmers may choose to leave crops completely unharvested and lose comparatively less money on the transaction.
The produce dumping process hit new highs when schools, hotels and restaurants closed. Some of the biggest clients of bulk suppliers were no longer in need of their regular orders, and farmers made the decision to dump out gallons of milk and plow over crops rather than spend the money on harvesting and processing unwanted food.
Even as consumer demand at the grocery store level soared, the amount of food coming out of farms and factories dwindled. The supply chain shifted as the movement of food became more complex. Food producers struggled to quickly adapt from selling their food to bulk buyers to selling to individual retailers. Production efforts had to be recalibrated in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions and regulations, and less employees and truckers were available to work.
While some farms, wholesale distributors and restaurants were able to pivot their distribution strategies effectively during the pandemic surges, there continues to be a significant gap between the mountains of food going to waste and those who remain hungry.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food security is defined as the “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” This broad definition glosses over nutritional equality nuances, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and specificities of accessibility that have all been brought into question this past year.
Pre-pandemic, some 10.5% of American families had experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019. Because of the following economic outbreak brought on by the virus, this number jumped to around 23% during 2020. While households with children are especially vulnerable to food insecurity, this was only compounded by school closures — essentially denying food-insecure children at least one nutritious meal a day during the school week.
More people than ever before utilized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the government’s food assistance program for low-income families; yet these food stamps are often lacking in their value and convenience, limiting users to specific stores, brands and items. While the government has programs and subsidies to buy excess food from producers and distribute them to food banks and emergency relief organizations, the bureaucratic red tape, costliness and half-baked result is almost not worth the effort.
In 2020, under former President Donald Trump, the USDA developed a buyback program that relieved farms of unwanted produce, packaging them up and shipping out food boxes to families in need. However, not only was it not run by the USDA’s food aid department, it also overpaid producers because it contracted out the deliveries of the boxes to food banks, compromising the quality of the produce when it showed up as well as the actual effectiveness of where the boxes were being sent. Produce often showed up rotten or was dispersed without variety and people received boxes of single ingredients.
According to a study conducted at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, more than one in four Los Angeles County households had experienced at least one instance of food insecurity over the summer. This worsened already-high levels experienced by marginalized groups, including Latinx people, women and those who were unemployed or low-income, and even impacted demographics who have historically been less likely to experience food insecurity.
Especially in South Central, which has historically been a food desert, irregular access to nutritious food is not abnormal. Food deserts — areas where it can be harder to find fresh fruits and vegetables due largely to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and health food providers — are often marked by inadequate public transportation, inconsistent vehicle accessibility and a community income level lower than the national average.
While this is a problem that is being addressed and slowly remediated via policy changes, microloans and lucrative social enterprises, many smaller independently-run corner stores lack the access to wholesale distributors and often have to purchase their own produce at retail prices to then resell to customers. Buying at higher prices only means that grocery store customers in these low-income areas have to pay exorbitant prices for fresh food.
Due to the pandemic, international food import and exportation has also been heavily impacted. Smaller, more limited nations that relied on food importation — essentially food deserts on a wider scale — were left high and dry as major agricultural exporters like the U.S. lessened their shipment frequency and quantities and forced them to get creative with crop production and more localized trading. By reversing the displacement of regionally grown produce with imports, small countries and island nations have started to substitute foreign imports with native substitutes, create more jobs, improve local infrastructures and build their self-sufficiency.
As the world population has grown, thus far, we’ve been able to claw our way along the Malthusian curve, keeping pace with the ever-increasing demand. Thanks to economic growth and improved agricultural technology, strides have been made toward eradicating world hunger. However, people across the globe are still undeniably malnourished and starving.
The pandemic exposed the critical issues and inadequacies within our food production and distribution systems at both the domestic and international level. As society starts to become vaccinated and life (hopefully) regains some semblance of normalcy, this should be an opportunity to make major institutional changes in how our nation’s food production system works. We need to redefine food security, sufficiently address nutritional needs and deficiencies and emphasize real accessibility and affordability.
Countries need to start from the inside, work to strengthen their own infrastructures, reduce food waste, grow a wider variety of crops, streamline food delivery and transport systems and rewrite the standards for healthy childhood development and nutrition. Every small step taken towards improving our respective food systems is essential in building up the resiliency and security of our global food network.
Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.