Fresh farm produce is healthy and delicious. Most of the time, that’s reason enough to sign up for a community-supported agriculture program (CSA), a system in which one pays to regularly receive goodie bags of whatever happens to be flourishing in nearby farmers’ fields, often along with optional local meat and dairy add-ons. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, bolstering local food systems is especially urgent – and there’s more at stake than just really good tomatoes.
According to recent analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak on local and regional food systems – such as farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs and restaurants – could total up to $1.3bn between March and May. That is likely to mean the loss of many farms, with small and new farms, and those owned by socially disadvantaged farmers, at particular risk. This financial crunch will only compound the difficulties that led US farm bankruptcies to an eight-year high in 2019, such as low commodity prices and flooding and fires caused by climate change.
The CSA model is designed to benefit small-scale farmers by allowing them to sell “shares” of their crops during seasons when their expenses are high but their income is not – including winter and early spring. Many CSAs also allow you to donate directly to local farmers, or provide the option of working on a farm, co-op style.
Another reason to support CSAs right now: safety. Current evidence suggests Covid-19 does not spread easily on the surface of fruits and vegetables; still, these are germaphobic times, and cautious shoppers have reason to feel the direct-to-consumer model is safer than dawdling around a grocery store’s produce aisle. As the New Jersey farmer John Squicciarino told local news last week, “Who knows how many people touched or sneezed on a bunch of kale at Shoprite?”
Local farmers have also proven more reliable in a crisis than the industrial food supply chain. The longer the outbreak continues, the more likely consumers will have to reckon with diminishing agricultural supply, particularly for imported products and those processed in large plants with hundreds of on-the-floor workers who are unable to practice social distancing effectively.
Much of North America’s food supply chain is highly specialized and consolidated; that makes it highly efficient in the best of times, but also inflexible and vulnerable to unanticipated strain. Right now, the systemic weakness of the American meat industry is evident. Large, centralized meat plants – many hard hit by Covid-19 – are shuttering, such as South Dakota’s Smithfield Foods, which previously produced 5% of America’s pork. The industrial farmers who rely on these major plants to process their livestock may cut their losses by euthanizing animals. In the coming weeks, grocery stores may start to struggle to stock enough meat.
Food waste in general has emerged as a major issue during the pandemic. At the same time that demand for groceries has surged, vast quantities of food produced by the service sector for now-closed restaurant chains, hotels and cafeterias are being discarded. A nimble, concerted federal effort may be able to repackage and redistribute foodstuffs. American agricultural associations are asking the government for creative solutions, such as buying their surplus product to reallocate to food pantries. But until a cohesive waste prevention strategy emerges, milk is getting dumped, eggs smashed, and vegetables left to rot in fields.
A supply chain reliant on a relatively small number of large factories to process and package food is a fragile one. Decentralized and localized systems are more resilient in the face of disruption – meaning more small-scale farms producing more food could be just what we need to protect our communities against future crises.
Not everyone can access locally farmed food, especially in urban areas. We need to expand and fund initiatives such as urban farms, community gardens and mobile food markets.
The pandemic has emphasized how valuable robust local food systems are. Supporting yours right now can start with contacting your community’s CSA and placing an order.
Adrienne Matei is a journalist who writes about technology and culture