The current food system is a web of national and global production and supply chains controlled by a handful of large corporations like Walmart, Aldi, Dole Foods, JBS, Flower Food, and Aramark. The ‘success’ of this centralized system is measured by profit derived from extracting from and depleting land, water, and air, exploiting workers, and undermining democratic processes.
Lessons from the pandemic
The current model of food production and distribution is fuel-intensive and an active contributor to the climate crisis—both in its reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers made using fossil fuels, as well as in its fuel-intensive distribution network that has the entire country consuming food from a handful of food hubs. These industrial supply chains have also proven to be rigid and inadequate during crises and natural disasters such as hurricanes, forest fires, and public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
What seemed to many as a shortage in food supply during the early weeks of the pandemic was in reality, the inability of the centralized distribution channels to respond to disruptions in transportation and the shuttering of usual outlets like cafeterias, restaurants, and stadiums. During this time, communities in some regions had limited or no access to food, while producers in the same regions lacked access to markets. By April 2020, as the rest of the country was attempting to ‘flatten the curve’, meatpacking plants turned into COVID-19 hot spots, putting workers’ lives and public health at risk.
Community-based food systems are crisis-proof food systems
Decentralized, smaller-scale, community-based food outlets proved more reliable in the face of the pandemic—direct markets (farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs)) saw an uptick, while mutual aid groups stepped in to ensure that at-risk community members were taken care of. At the same time, more people were growing their food, with the help of community gardeners and seed keepers. Community-based economies proved critical in this time of crisis, and we know that to survive future crises, especially those brought about by climate change, we have to transform our food system.
To do this, we need immediate and long-term investment in localized food systems, Policy that supports the growth of small and medium-sized farms, and institutional adoption of value-based procurement programs like the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) that can help small and mid-sized producers to grow their operations, access markets and nurture mutually beneficial relationships between producers, workers, and consumers. We need shorter supply chains that grow pasture-raised livestock on independent small and medium-scale farms with small and mid-sized meat processors which are also more environmentally sustainable and result in more nutritious food for eaters. We also need increased funding for research on the role of regenerative agriculture and traditional agricultural practices in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, preserving and nurturing biodiversity, and subsequently mitigating climate change.
Grassroots organizations, small-scale producers, Indigenous communities, and cultural organizers have been building resilient and equitable food systems for years. As the pandemic has revealed, these systems are best positioned to withstand and mitigate crises. Investing in them will move us closer to a food system that can not only carry us through crisis like the pandemic and climate change, but also mitigate their impacts.