When the coronavirus first struck the U.S., the response was varied across the country, but many Americans fearing the unknown stocked up on basic food items, as they would prepare for in expecting a blizzard, a hurricane or some other emergency. The result was empty store shelves, which generated panic buying and hoarding, further disrupting the nation’s food supply chain.
Another level of disruption occurred as workers employed in meat processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores contracted the virus, causing industry shutdowns and shortages of certain products such as pork and beef.
As the U.S. economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April, pushing the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent, millions of Americans without a job or a paycheck joined long lines at food banks. With a flood of people lining up for a box of basic groceries, food banks are now struggling to keep up with demand.
While increasing numbers of Americans go hungry, farmers and large agribusinesses are dumping milk and produce, breaking eggs and euthanizing livestock that they can no longer sell amid the coronavirus economic lockdown. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Amanda Starbuck, senior food researcher and policy analyst at Food & Water Watch. Here, she discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the failures of the U.S. food system, and her group’s advocacy for structural change to improve worker safety, as well as public and environmental health.
AMANDA STARBUCK: We go into, for instance, the grocery store and nowadays things are a little bit different. But you rewind to a couple of months ago and you just see all sorts of full shelves and you see thousands of different brands of every food that you can imagine. And it looks like we just have all these choices and there’s all these companies out there. But in reality, a lot of the products that you see are owned by a few select companies. A lot of the meat that is produced – about four out of five of every head of cattle that are slaughtered in this country, are slaughtered by the top four companies that control most of the market. We see a lot of market control of eggs as well. And then dairy – and so, really as consumers and as for the people who grow our food as well there has just been a chokehold, a lot of power and it has only gotten worse over the years, has really been concentrated into a few major players.
We can, you know, go about our daily lives and not necessarily experience it. But what this pandemic has really kind of shown is how vulnerable this sort of food system is. You know, you have a single hog processing plant for instance, in Iowa or in South Dakota close down and that wipes out immediately 5 percent of the entire hog processing capacity of the whole country. A few decades before you might have smaller, more independent processors that you could take your hogs to. So if you had one close down, you might have alternative arrangements. But now you have, farmers unfortunately euthanizing their herds because they no longer have any other market to take their hogs to. And so it’s finally, I think, coming to a point where it’s becoming more and more difficult for consumers and for our lawmakers to really ignore the problems and how vulnerable we have allowed our food system to become over the years.
SCOTT HARRIS: Amanda, as our listeners are aware, President Trump issued orders to keep these vital meatpacking plants open despite the fact that they are an extremely frightening vector for infections in many states across the country, whether they be Tyson or Smithfield or any number of these large conglomerates that provide the bulk of U.S. meat products for our supermarkets. What’s your response to President Trump issuing an order to keep these meat plants open despite the fact that the safety procedures are obviously not up to snuff and keeping these plants open certainly risks many employees’ lives.
AMANDA STARBUCK: No, it absolutely is, it was the wrong decision to make. You know, until these plants can actually have requirements in place for social distancing and can prove that they’re actually looking out for their workers, I don’t think they should be opening and unfortunately it seems to be a decision that was made more to help the businesses themselves rather than the workers or the consumers. These companies export about 30 percent of their hogs abroad and they’re continuing to export even into this month as they complain about we’re going to run out of meat, they’re still selling it to markets such as China. So I really think that decision was made to pander to these big corporations at the risk of the health and safety of the workers and at the risk of the health and safety of the rest of the country as this pandemic continues to spread.
SCOTT HARRIS: Amanda, how can the federal government intervene here to reroute food that is being destroyed, whether it’s meat or milk or cheese or other products that are not being sold in the regular market that they’re used to, but get this food to the people who are lined up at food banks who desperately need it. Is there a role for the federal government during this crisis?
AMANDA STARBUCK: Oh, there absolutely is. We actually called for the National Guard to help with that rerouting. And actually that’s happened on certain scales in some communities where the National Guard has helped step in to pack food boxes at a food pantry for instance.
But you know, they could also help with distributing from, you know, the farm to the pantry to begin with. But yeah, I think the federal government does have a role and there has been. There was money being used to help purchase food and bring it to food banks. We’re just concerned that, you know, if it’s going to be anything like if the trade war bailout – JBS, which is a Brazilian meat processing company, came out the biggest winner of that package. And so we’re just afraid that, you know, are the big players going to be the ones that are going to be given the best treatment? Or is this money, you know, to purchase food from farms actually going to go to the smaller farms to keep them afloat as well. But yes, absolutely. I think that’s what government should continue and should help as much as they can. So this food isn’t wasted and so that hungry people can eat.
SCOTT HARRIS: Amanda, review for our listeners some of the important changes that you feel our government should address here – the failings that have been exposed in this pandemic. And maybe also discuss how this could be a topic of debate in the coming presidential election campaign.
AMANDA STARBUCK: We need to look at the big picture, right? So we can address these issues as they come. We can try to pump more and more money into meeting the immediate needs of people, which we should be doing – immediate needs so people can be fed, but we can’t ignore what brought us to this situation in the first place. We can’t ignore the fact that we have allowed this food system to be run by corporations for the past few decades at the risk of our environment, at the risk of our workers, at the detriment of our farmers and our real communities. And so I think we really do need to put this at the forefront.
And there has been – there was encouragingly, a few of the Democratic candidates did have some stronger farm policies that we’ve seen in recent years. (Sen.) Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, for instance, with a Farm System Reform Act, but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, brought up some issues about supply management and that ties into factory farms as well. And so, I think I’m encouraged that these issues are coming more to forefront and I’m really hoping that that once life goes back to whatever normal it’ll return to that we don’t forget what’s happening here and that we can really kind of keep carrying these conversations forward.
For more information visit Food and Water Watch at foodandwaterwatch.org.