fb-pixel Skip to main content
Perspective | Magazine

The pandemic revealed our food system is broken. We can fix it.

More than a quarter of families with children are food insecure, in part because our supply chains are too consolidated. There are better models, including some right here.

The Daily Table team in Central Square.
The Daily Table team in Central Square.from Nick Surette

Two days before his inauguration, Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, loaded groceries into boxes at a food bank in Philadelphia. At the time, Biden reportedly acknowledged that hunger and food insecurity in our country had escalated precipitously since COVID began. Recent survey data show that more than a quarter of US families with children are food insecure — their parents lack regular access to affordable, healthy food. That’s up from 13.6 percent just one year ago. Massachusetts has seen a 59 percent rise in food insecurity since 2018, the highest rate of increase in the nation. Yet with stay-at-home orders and social distancing in place last spring, we saw farmers from Florida to California destroying crops, dumping milk, and destroying millions of animals because chain restaurants and large institutions could no longer use the supplies. A lack of existing infrastructure to package goods for sale directly to local markets also forced farmers to destroy food supplies. The food shortages at the beginning of the pandemic were exacerbated by these conditions.

President Biden promises relief through his American Rescue Plan. It includes more emergency food support and increases funding for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), which provides low-income individuals and families with benefits to supplement their food budgets. These rescue efforts to feed hungry Americans are essential. But are they enough?

Advertisement



Our food supply chain is extraordinarily fragile, largely because a very small number of manufacturers and processors control it. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the four largest food processing companies — those that handle everything from butter to meat — control more than 50 percent of the manufacturing in selected food markets. With COVID, we are learning the cost of such concentration.

Witness Arizona’s Yuma County: Known as “America’s salad bowl,” the region produces 90 percent of all leafy vegetables in the United States from November through March. Despite being overrun with more COVID cases than any place in the country this winter, farm workers managed to maintain production. But what if that hadn’t been the case? Last year, when workers at a meat packing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, fell sick from COVID, the plant closed, taking 5 percent of the nation’s pork supply offline. This contributed to an increase in meat prices last spring.

Advertisement



We have set ourselves up for additional food shortages should we suffer another pandemic, an extreme weather event, or, heaven forbid, a conflict on our shores. As one domino falls in an environment that relies on a small number of producers and manufacturers, a significant system failure could occur, affecting many more than 30 percent of American families.

During the benediction he delivered at Biden’s inauguration, the Rev. Silvester Beaman called on us to share “our abundance with those who are hungry” and for “preserving the land, reaping from it a sustainable harvest.” Achieving this vision means a less concentrated, more resilient food system.

Based on the team that President Biden is assembling, I have hope. Incoming Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently said that he would be open to addressing food chain crises that could arise due to climate change. He has promised to push for diversification of livestock and crop production by cultivating local food systems. And Jewel Bronaugh, nominated for deputy secretary at the US Department of Agriculture, has done pivotal work in food security as the Virginia commissioner of agriculture, focusing on investments in local grocers and innovative food projects, many that reach underserved communities.

Advertisement



But federal efforts need the support of the entire public sector as well as private sector corporations, foundations, and philanthropic individuals. The most fruitful investment we can make is to fuel social innovation and empower entrepreneurial food leaders.

As an example, The Food Project, headquartered in Lincoln, employs more than 100 teenagers to grow 200,000 pounds of produce and donates upward of 180,000 servings to hunger relief organizations in Eastern Massachusetts.

Daily Table, a nonprofit community grocer founded by Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, offers fresh, healthy food to communities at affordable prices, accepting SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks, which double the value of SNAP benefits when buyers purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Its first store opened in 2015 in Dorchester, and it now has locations in Roxbury and, as of January, in Cambridge’s Central Square.

Daily Table has already shown the ability to scale locally. With impact investing, the model might become the next Wholesome Wave — a nonprofit based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that partners with community organizations across the United States to battle nutrition insecurity, a lack of healthy food. Wholesome Wave conceived of a fresh fruit and vegetable prescription program that allows health care providers to prescribe the fruits and vegetables needed for patients to manage diet-related ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. Their program paved the way for federal grants to expand the model across the country. These grants were permanently funded in the 2018 US Farm Bill.

Advertisement



The organization I lead, Newman’s Own Foundation, supports these organizations and dozens of others focused on sustainable food systems, through financial support for general operations, leadership development, and capacity-building efforts.

We as a nation need to seed and elevate initiatives — from sustainable farming, social entrepreneurs, and Silicon Valley solutions, to sound government policies and back again. By putting our dollars and creative energy behind myriad food enterprises, we can diversify our resources, build resilience into our food system for every day, prompt innovation, and jump-start the economy while preparing for the inevitable next crisis. All the while, private entities can partner with government to magnify the successes.

We live in the richest nation on earth. We can eliminate hunger by sowing a sustainable harvest. Won’t you join us?


Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, is president and CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation and professor emerita of The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.