What Covid-19 Teaches Us About the Food System


Since shelter-in-place orders were enacted in the United States, social media and mainstream news outlets have been inundated with elaborate recipes that promise sure-fire success, even for the most amateur of chefs. These posts tend to reference the ubiquity of ingredients that “everyone has in their pantry,” projecting a sense of collective preparedness and security. The prevailing narrative on food during Covid-19 emphasizes ease and creativity in an attempt to raise the spirits of worried Americans stuck at home. Many Americans are eager to mix themselves a quarantini, try their hand at baking sourdough bread, and embrace a “treat-yourself” mentality. However, the media’s focus on self-indulgence during shelter-in-place obscures the food story we should be focused on right now. The fallout of the pandemic is plunging much of the world – including communities in our own backyard – into severe food insecurity.

The US has experienced alarming rates of food insecurity that long predate Covid-19, with one out of nine Americans deemed food insecure in 2018. The situation has only grown worse since the arrival of Covid-19. Contrary to claims made by large-scale producers, the pandemic has not created a “black swan” – an event that is rare and impossible to predict – for the US food industry. Rather, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of a system that is as inflexible as it is complex. As Nate Kleinman explained in a recent interview with Food Tank, altering anything in the US food system is like “trying to turn a warship.”

Covid-19 has proven no exception to the perpetuation of the industrialized food system. The majority of stimulus funding for agriculture was earmarked for corporate agribusiness, leaving little support for small and mid-size farmers. Yet farmworkers and families in need of additional food assistance were excluded entirely. The last agricultural bailout, President Trump’s 2018 Market Facilitation Program (MFP), likewise prioritized the most lucrative agribusinesses. Under the MFP, the top one percent of recipients received an average payout of US $183,331, while the bottom 80% of recipients received less than US $5,000.

A food system that prioritizes population and ecosystemic wellbeing is capable of withstanding unexpected shocks and, more importantly, sustaining a growing population well into the future.


Small-scale farmers in the United States have found themselves on the front lines of the present crisis, serving long waitlists of customers looking to benefit from community-supported agriculture programs. In the absence of the complex supply chain on which they depend, factory farms are forced to discard their crops and animal products by the tons, adding to the millions of tons of annual food waste that were already occurring prior to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, small-scale farms are still accessible to their local communities. Instead of funneling billions of dollars into saving a deeply flawed system, why not invest in simpler, sustainable systems that have already proven more resilient during times of crisis?

As of late April 2020, nearly 40% of women with children under age 12 in the United States had reported household food insecurity since the onset of the pandemic. This is compared to 15% of women surveyed in 2018. Covid-19 has evidenced sociodemographic factors, such as race, economic status, and geographic location, as important predictors of who will contract the virus and who will be hit hardest by the resulting economic fallout. In both instances, persons of color, undocumented immigrants, and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. Increased food insecurity will exacerbate diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, that overwhelmingly affect these same groups.

Ensuring public health is not only about providing quality healthcare, it also mandates the affordability and access to a wide range of life-sustaining goods and services. Nutritious food is a basic human right. It is imperative that the United States transition to an agricultural model that values farmers as guarantors of public health and stewards of the land. A food system that prioritizes population and ecosystemic wellbeing is capable of withstanding unexpected shocks and, more importantly, sustaining a growing population well into the future.

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash