(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It was mid-April when Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic Representative from Connecticut, realized that the U.S. had entered the early stages of a food crisis. Thousands of minimum-wage food workers were contracting Covid-19. Major meat-processing plants were shutting down. Livestock producers were euthanizing their animals by the tens of thousands. Vegetable growers were plowing unsold produce back into the soil. Millions of jobless, hungry Americans were signing up for food relief.
“I was watching the food-supply chain break down right in front of my eyes,” DeLauro told me. “We have more than enough supply, but we can’t get it to the folks who need it. And we’re not protecting those who produce it.”
The pandemic was accelerating entrenched problems in the food-supply chain — an archaic system that needs to be modernized. Having served on the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee for nearly three decades, DeLauro understood that these cascading problems could not be solved piecemeal. Yet this was precisely the Trump administration’s approach. “Everybody was looking at the issues as segmented,” she told me, “we have to look at them holistically.”
DeLauro consulted a motley crew of problem-solvers: Jose Andres, the celebrity chef who founded World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit providing emergency food relief to thousands of Americans daily; two former Agriculture Department secretaries, Tom Vilsack and Dan Glickman; and the House Agriculture Committee chairman, Collin Peterson. Then she crafted an “Action Plan to Safeguard America’s Food Supply” that she sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue two weeks ago. The response he issued Thursday was noncommittal.
DeLauro’s plan calls for significant and long overdue reforms, not just to the USDA, but to the complex network of agencies that govern our food supply. It is a crucial step toward establishing a more resilient food system that can withstand future crises — but leaders in Washington need to go even further.
In the same way that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gave rise to the Department of Homeland Security, and the financial crisis of 2008 spurred the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2020 pandemic must move lawmakers to prioritize food security in the U.S. Right now, there is no single authority responsible for this. More than a dozen agencies have a role in regulating food and worker safety, and the system connecting food supply with demand is similarly Byzantine. Washington leaders should consider creating a White House-appointed food security czar, for example, or even a new Department of Food Security, to coordinate action among the various actors in the food-supply chain.
The strength of DeLauro’s plan lies in its relief strategy for consumers, farmers, food banks and food workers. For low-income consumers, the plan would increase the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the USDA’s anti-hunger program that serves nearly 40 million people. It would make the program more flexible and scalable during a crisis. This is sound: There is no faster and more effective system for feeding the hungry in the U.S. than SNAP.
The plan would also encourage farmers and processors to donate their surplus goods, by having the USDA shoulder the steep packaging and distribution fees that producers incur when moving their products from farms to food banks. Farmers should not have to pay to donate their food. DeLauro is also calling for greater investment in cold storage at food banks, so that they can accept and store more perishable foods. Cold-storage capacity needs to be extended up and down the supply chain, since lack of refrigeration can lead to more discarded animal carcasses and rotting produce.
DeLauro’s plan also addresses a key blind spot in the Department of Agriculture’s purview: worker safety. “The USDA inspectors that grew out of the Upton Sinclair era and oversee the health and safety of food products do not protect the health and safety of food workers,” said Glickman. DeLauro calls for an intergovernmental task force to orchestrate more effective collaboration between the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the agencies that oversee and enforce worker safety: the Centers for Disease Control and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But DeLauro’s plan only scratches the surface of the most crucial lesson that this crisis has revealed: the U.S. needs a more decentralized food system. For decades, food production — and in particular, meat and poultry processing — has been consolidated into ever-bigger facilities optimized for speed and efficiency. That makes it very fragile. “We are seeing right now how the food system centralized in big factories is putting us in danger,” Andres told me. “Decentralization makes you nimble.”
“You may be better off having multiple plants in multiple locations, smaller facilities to produce enough product, and that may mean a little less profit,” said Vilsack. “But it means that if you have an incident like this that threatens your workforce, you'll always have sufficient operation capacity.”
Likewise, the U.S. needs to help small and mid-sized farmers stay in business. Many now worry that the pandemic will result in even more consolidation. We have to “figure out ways in which the little guys don't have to compete in a commodity market. Where they’re able to dictate their own prices as opposed to have the prices dictated,” Vilsack said. During the Obama administration, Vilsack helped small producers by expanding farmers markets and developing a farm-to-school program. “If these efforts had continued, our system would be a bit more resilient,” he added.
This decentralization of the food supply will only work if the distribution system is streamlined. Roughly half of the food sold in the U.S. now goes to restaurants, hotels, schools, universities, corporate cafeterias, hospitals and other institutions. When they all shut down because of the coronavirus, there was a major overload of supply and no easy way to redirect it to foodbanks and markets. Technology can help solve this: The government needs to incentivize the best minds in big data to develop direct marketing systems that link food producers directly to consumers.
At the Bipartisan Policy Center food summit on Tuesday, Perdue seemed astoundingly out of touch with the challenges at hand: “I’m really proud,” he said. “The most efficient, sophisticated, synchronized food-supply chain in the world has been nimble enough to … fulfill that motto of doing right, feeding everyone.”
But not since the Great Depression has the U.S. seen more severe food insecurity. In DeLauro’s home state of Connecticut, SNAP applications have quadrupled. In California, farmers and ranchers are seeing a 50% drop in demand for their products, while food bank demand has surged nearly 75%. Some food banks in Florida have lately reported a 600% increase in demand. This doesn’t mean that Americans are starving en masse, but a larger share of citizens are now depending on donated food for their nourishment.
“This is a national security issue and a humanitarian issue,” said Andres. “We must use the force of the emergency to tackle the problem before the problem tackles us.”
Nearly every food expert and climate-change scientist I’ve interviewed has made clear that the coronavirus pandemic will likely be the first in a series of large-scale disruptions to our food supply. Drought, heat, flooding, insects, superstorms and weather volatility are putting increasing pressure on our farms.
The U.S. agriculture system needs more resilience, and DeLauro’s plan can be an important first step.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."
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