The outbreak of coronavirus has had serious impacts on how American society functions, including the availability of food. The complex nature of the food supply chain is leaving Americans struggling to purchase food even when there’s still enough supply available.

Here’s a quick explanation about how coronavirus is disrupting food chains, and what can still be done to fix the issues in the system. 

Workers Struggle With COVID-19 Outbreaks

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Alex Frank

Farmworkers face risks of contracting coronavirus in the field, meaning they are no longer able to do their jobs. America relies on H-2A agricultural visa workers to plant and pick crops, and while visa workers are still allowed to enter the United States, there are concerns that fewer workers will be making the journey given the situation. This is especially concerning because springtime is the planting season.

In Florida, a lack of workers is beginning to impact crop supplies, and while there have been limited interruptions to certain staple crops like rice and wheat, problems with planting are mounting, according to Reuters.

Processing plants are also closing down, disrupting the supply of food to grocery stores. Pork processor Smithfield Foods had to shut down one of its major plants in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after a coronavirus outbreak. The South Dakota plant accounts for 4-5% of U.S. pork supply, making this a serious loss for the industry. The National Pork Producers Council has said the labor loss and shutdowns are decimating the pork industry.

“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan said.

Complex Supply Chains Lead to Waste

Although the UN reports that there are enough supplies now, a long-term outbreak could place a serious strain on the supply chain: the relationship between farmers, plants, shipping, and retailers.

Commercial and consumer supply chains remain very separated. The food that was originally supposed to be going to places like restaurants and schools, which have closed due to COVID-19, is unable to be delivered as intended.

This has led to excess food crops being destroyed by suppliers. Vegetables and other perishable items are rotting and dairy farmers are dumping milk because it is not able to go where it is needed.

“You start ending school lunch programs, universities shut down, food service shuts down, tourism and hotels have low occupancy and at the end of the day you have a tremendous amount of the overall supply of food having to be redirected,” said Tom Vilsack, former secretary of agriculture under the Obama-administration.

Excess food could be rerouted to grocery stores and food banks, but the infrastructure to do so is lacking. According to The American Prospect, there are several logistical challenges with reworking products to be sold commercially. Raw items would need repacking, contracts would need to be negotiated, and manpower would be needed to deliver items to stores and food banks. All of this takes time and human resources already stretched thin by the virus. 

Intervention Could Help the System

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Shelby Cohron

Despite the interruptions to food supply production and delivery, steps can still be taken to prevent the situation from becoming worse.

The CEOs of Feeding America and the American Farm Bureau have proposed a USDA-run voucher program to help farmers and food banks work directly together to get products quickly to food banks instead of going through a third-party first. The United Nations also supports government mobilization of food banks and the establishment of emergency food reserves.

Giving personal protective equipment to food supply workers will also help keep food production flowing and prevent shortages.

Though COVID-19 has challenged America’s food production system, there are still ways to prevent more serious complications, but quick action needs to be taken as the United States navigates this outbreak. 

If you are interested in helping those struggling with food insecurity due to coronavirus, consider a financial donation to your local food bank