COVID-19 Exposes Gaps in the Food System and the Resilience of Small Farms

Written by Nicole Oveisi, Fair Farms Intern

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has seen disruptions in the food supply across the country. With outbreaks in factories and meatpacking plants, and restaurant and big-box grocery store closures, cracks in the food system have been revealed. While uncertainty remains around how our food supply will continue to be impacted, small farms across the country have proven their resilience and their ability to adapt and thrive in trying times. 

Our large-scale, industrial agriculture system is based on maximum efficiency for maximum profits–getting as many food products as possible from farms to factories to packaging facilities to store shelves through a methodical supply chain. When disaster strikes, faults in the system become more apparent. It is reported that just four companies in the United States control over 40% of the poultry market, 85% of the beef market, and over 70% of the pork market. With so much centralized control, what happens when one of these companies sees an outbreak? 

In rural America, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains, meatpacking plants have emerged as the most significant COVID-19 hot spots. Large-scale closures like these can have massive impacts on the meat supply throughout the country, however, smaller farms have been stepping up and providing meat and produce where big-ag has failed. After the announcement of stay-at-home orders and the closures of restaurants to seated customers, smaller farms feared for the impact on their operations. Many farms sell directly to restaurants, and some only have restaurant-based customers. Fortunately, smaller farms have adapted extremely well amid this pandemic. In some cases, farms have even seen an increase in their customer-base and sales. 

More Maryland farms are focusing their business on home deliveries. Consumers have been quick to adjust as well, focusing on local farms and farmers’ markets for their produce as grocery store shelves are slower to restock. Because there has been a shift in demand, farmers have started growing based on the needs of their new customer-base. This ability to meet demand would not be possible on such short notice in a larger agricultural market with more vehicle miles traveled and more points of process between farm and consumer. 

The Maryland Farmers Market Association has created a resource map of local food outlets that are open with social distancing guidelines. 

Farmers providing for their communities is nothing new; what seems to be changing is the perception around growing food as people become more conscious of where their food comes from and who is growing it. Local and regional production is proving to be much more sustainable and resilient in times of uncertainty. Hopefully, consumers are taking note.

Our farmers are the unsung heroes of this pandemic. Farmers that sell to local markets have not only reduced the environmental impact of delivering goods, they have boosted local economies, employed local people, and have continuously fed our communities. As this pandemic has forced people to think about where their food comes from and as food habits start to change, hopefully this new awareness will continue to drive consumers to local and sustainable sources for a long time to come. While the gaps in our modern food system have been made apparent, a localized food system has modeled resilience.