Images of COVID-related shocks to the American food system have stunned many of us: long lines of cars waiting at foodbanks; farmers dumping milk and burying onions and cabbages to compost back into the soil; empty shelves at grocery stores.  The ironies are blunt: too much supply in some places, but too little on the shelves in others. 

The food system has weathered these shocks impressively well, but the past months have also revealed structural vulnerabilities that we must attend to. Returning to “normal” is not good enough.

For many American consumers, food production and distribution tends to function seamlessly, providing stable quantities at consistent prices; most of us pay scant attention to how it works. We have taken for granted its production, its logistics, its labor force, its 24/7 coordination across time and space.

Our seamless domestic food system is not the global norm; food systems do not function smoothly and are not expected to in many countries, especially in low income countries characterized by lots of small-scale farming. The certainty of our own country’s low food prices and stable food supply is something of a marvel for what it accomplishes on a daily basis, especially in this crisis. It is efficient at its objectives; and its over-arching objectives are low cost and omni-present food. Yet our food system is also characterized by acute global and regional inequities in the production and distribution of food, the co-existence of hunger and plenty. 

Since the middle of March, however, food systems have had to respond to rapid changes. American consumers have been paying more attention. 

The pandemic has altered how Americans eat. Households living under stay-at-home orders have shifted their food consumption away from restaurants, bars, dining halls, and school cafeterias. Moreover, there have been significant changes in the timing of consumer demand.  Households that can afford to do so now stock up: buying more but less often; for millions of others, however, sudden unemployment has meant less money to spend at the supermarket and a need to visit food pantries or enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for assistance, often for the first time. Even with these supports, some are falling through the cracks--in April, more than 17 percent of mothers with children under the age of 12 reported that their families not have enough to eat because they could not afford sufficient food. 

COVID has also shocked the food supply: as meat processing plants have closed down or reduced their output in response to virus outbreaks among their workers, the consequences have made headlines. Workers have become sick on farms in the United States, and small farmers around the world have struggled amid lockdowns to access the labor and markets.

What are we to learn from watching the functioning and response of the global food system in recent months? 

First, the crisis reveals what in normal times we all have a tendency to overlook: the resilience of the food system is built on a labor supply working in precarious conditions – both in the United States but also globally. Many are working because otherwise they would not themselves have resources for food, or may not be able to apply for unemployment assistance. These workers have accepted and shown up for positions that are risky and difficult so they can survive. The poor in low income countries are similarly essential and unprotected: for small farmers around the world, there is no unemployment to cover agricultural input costs for the next season, and labor can be restricted to immediate family in the pandemic.

These workers need protection; both because it is intrinsically the right thing to do and because a food system built on vulnerable labor is itself vulnerable at its core. Moments of acute vulnerability that we have witnessed in our food supply chains in recent months – processing plant closures, empty shelves, supply shortages – have been attributable to workers coming to work sick out of sheer need themselves. The food system will seize up dramatically and with broad effects if too many workers become sick or die.  Many individual farmers and businesses have stepped up to protect their own workers, but more systematic and coordinated action from the local to the international is required to have a food system strong enough to weather the shocks likely to come. 

Efficiency in an economic sense means that all factors of production are being employed according to their most valuable use. Yet the inadequate protection and compensation for farmers and workers in these vital operations and the supply problems to which these shortfalls are conjoined lead to serious questions about the imperatives and tradeoffs of efficiency and specialization that we should not turn away from. 

The United States food system has proven enormously robust in recent months. The shelves are generally well-stocked again. Consumer prices, while increasing slightly for some goods including eggs and meat, remain relatively low. Farmers have continued to plant, to harvest, and to supply and have demonstrated creativity reaching consumers as food service buyers have dried up. The farm-level production losses we see documented in news articles and photographs are mostly due to the fact that the costs of moving food from supply chains intended for large-scale, institutional buyers to retail consumers have in some cases proved prohibitively high. 

In the same news cycle, however, we may read of thousands of Americans queued up at food banks in San Antonio Texas, Burlington Vermont, New York, and many other locations nationwide, of farmers on the brink of bankruptcy, and of workers in the food industries taking genuine daily risks to keep things going. Around the world, national lockdowns have prevented farmers from bringing their crops to market, and the World Food Program has predicted that the number of people going hungry worldwide will double this year.

A second and related lesson about our food system, then, that the crisis has made clear is an enduring structural problem: the basic inequities in food access. As before the crisis, we have enough food. The problem is that people cannot always afford it and that poverty limits access, both in the United States as well as in many low and middle-income countries. Many households (more every day) struggle to access the food available in our functioning supply chains due to the persistent economic crisis and the lack of a sufficient social safety net. Poverty and hunger are intertwined; with unemployment rates soaring, we must step in to support the most vulnerable with expanded social protection programs. Not only is this the right thing to do, it will also support our farmers, our markets, and our supply chains. 

The current moment makes the often invisible visible, laying bare the co-existence of excess and want as well as our fundamental reliance on the people who farm our food, pick the crops, pack the boxes, drive the trucks, stock the shelves, and work the checkout counters but in many cases still lack essential protections. Our lack of a social safety net is part of what keeps them showing up and that lack of protection also endangers the system. Our lack of a social safety net is also the reason for the cars lining the highways, waiting for food. These are the lessons we should take to heart as we return to a new normal. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to build back stronger, safer, and more equitable. 

Hope Michelson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Global Food and Agriculture Program.

Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.