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The economic disruption brought by the coronavirus has led to recent news stories that seem to contradict each other. In parts of the country, cars stretch for miles filled with hungry people seeking donations from overwhelmed food banks. Meanwhile, farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk and allowing crops to rot in their fields. The contrast between these two scenes has caused many to ask: How can there simultaneously be not enough food and too much food?
The answer is the food supply chain, a complex series of steps that brings food from farms to kitchen tables. Each link in the chain — growers, distributors, transporters, grocery stores and more — faces its own unique challenges because of the pandemic.
“It’s a cascading series of events here that’s really disrupting the U.S. food chain,” former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. So far these disruptions haven’t led to any widespread food scarcity, beyond shortages of certain items that have seen a surge in demand since the start of the crisis.
Why there’s debate
The good news, according to industry experts, is that America’s farms are producing plenty of food. For the time being, the virus hasn’t done much to derail the production part of the supply chain. Food being dumped by farmers represents a surplus caused by the massive drop-off in demand coming from restaurants, hotels and schools. There are major logistical hurdles involved in getting food intended for restaurants ready for supermarket shelves, but the Food and Drug Administration has relaxed some regulations to make the transition easier.
Agriculture experts do see some reasons to worry about possible shortages in the months to come if the economic downturn causes farms to grow less food or to close.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how much food is grown if it never gets to the people who need it. The massive spike in demand at grocery stores means less food is being donated to food banks. Outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers at key points along the supply chain could also disrupt the distribution process. A major pork processing plant in South Dakota was forced to close after more than 200 employees contracted the coronavirus. Migrant workers, who often work in close quarters and may not have access to proper health care, are at particular risk, advocates say.
Most industry experts agree that food shortages aren’t a major concern in the immediate future, but that doesn’t mean the outbreak isn’t having an impact. Some items may continue to be hard to find, while other goods may see a price increase.
The U.S. has plenty of food
“Ethical considerations aside, [hoarding is] just not necessary: The country is not about to run out of food.” — Rachel Sugar, Vox
Getting food into grocery stores is a massive logistical challenge
“The problem is that the commercial and consumer food supply chains are separated by a chasm of logistics, and there’s no infrastructure to easily reroute all the food meant for commercial use — places like restaurants and schools, which have both largely shut down — to grocery stores, where regular consumers can access them.” — Jenny G. Zhang, Eater
America’s farmers are up to the task
“The short answer is that U.S. agriculture is strong enough to handle it, with farmers still farming and no major shortages in sight.” — Brent Schrotenboer, USA Today
If workers get sick, the supply chain will break down
“Labor is going to be the biggest thing that can break. If large numbers of people start getting sick in rural America, all bets are off.” — Supply chain expert Karan Girotra to New York Times
Empty shelves are not a sign that food is running out
“The reason you’re seeing the empty shelves is because of how much frenzied buying there has been.” — Bloomberg editor Millie Munshi to NPR
Hoarding could create unnecessary shortages
“Not only are people buying more food at the grocery store to eat at home, they’re seeing reports of price gouging or import restrictions or stricter stay-at-home orders, which drives consumers to stock up even more, which leads to photos of empty shelves, which sends the cycle into a faster spin.” — Laura Reiley, Washington Post
Prices on some items are likely to go up
“If farmers can’t find enough workers or if their farming practices are disrupted because of the pandemic, Americans could have less or pricier food this summer. And because international farmers and their supply chains face similar problems, we could receive fewer food imports, potentially limiting supply and driving up prices.” — Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN
Border restrictions could mean there aren’t enough workers to support farms
“Unlike previous food crises, this one stands to be exacerbated by global restrictions on movement. Millions of migrant workers involved in agriculture and food production are now immobile because of border crackdowns. This has left produce unharvested and much-needed food left to rot in fields.” — United Nations chief economist Maximo Torero, Foreign Policy
The virus will prevent many people from accessing the food they need
“COVID-19 creates new food access challenges for those under quarantine and who have become ill. This is in addition to the ongoing struggles of those who live in areas without nearby grocery stores, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, older adults living alone and those reliant on public transit.” — Roni Neff and Erin Biehl, The Hill
The economic downturn will cause long-term supply concerns
“The disruption to the food supply chain is not likely to be short-term. ... Spring is planting season, which means that farmers are currently making decisions on how much to plant for the coming year. Low prices, low demand, and limited access to markets could mean that farmers are forced to curtail production dramatically.” — Alexander Sammon, American Prospect
Developing nations could see widespread hunger
“The U.S., Europe and other wealthy regions are unlikely to experience serious problems, although prices could rise significantly for some items, like fresh produce. But poorer countries — especially those with existing food scarcity or those that are big importers with falling currencies — could struggle.” — Nathaniel Taplin, Wall Street Journal
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