The Coronavirus Forces Us to Fix the Flaws of our Food-Supply System

By Randy Rosenthal

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The coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system in at least two ways. One is by compelling retail food staff–grocery workers and delivery “shoppers”–to put their health at risk. The other is the widespread destruction of fresh food.

Next to the fragility of the medical industry, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system—especially the vulnerability of the people who make it possible. Grocery-store workers and delivery “shoppers” in particular have found themselves taking on the first-responder risks of doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Dozens have died of COVID-19, and thousands have gotten sick. Understandably, they’re afraid to go to work. But they have to, because in order for the rest of us to eat, someone must deliver food to grocery stores, and someone must stock the shelves.

Many grocery stores have automated checkouts, but most still have clerks. And so while many of us can work from home and observe physical distancing guidelines, grocery-store workers are forced to come in proximity with hundreds of people a day. Due to this sudden and dramatic uptick in risk, the lack of safety and security that grocery companies provide their workers has become starkly apparent.

Soon after governors announced stay-at-home orders in March, supermarket workers and “shoppers” began to protest the dangerous conditions they face and the lack of health support available to them. Most live paycheck to paycheck, and cannot afford to miss work, especially because most supermarkets do not provide paid sick leave. And now workers had to expose themselves to getting sick from the coronavirus, a risk that is exacerbated by the failure of supermarkets to provide basic protective personal equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and sanitizer.

Whole Foods particularly has come into focus for its poor treatment of its workers. As one worker reported to Oxfam America, Whole Foods did not provide PPE and actually encouraged workers to buy their own. He also reported that even if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the store does not close to get cleaned. Nor is the information shared with other employees with whom the infected worker may have come in contact. This creates a frightening, dangerous working environment that has many grocery workers freaked out.

Whole Foods “shoppers” who deliver for Amazon Prime, as well as Instacart “shoppers,” are also on the front lines, as they deliver groceries so that we don’t have to leave our homes to get them. In normal times, these “shoppers” provide a convenience for anyone too busy or too lazy to shop for themselves. Now they are risking their lives—and the lives of anyone they come in contact with—so that we don’t have to go to the market.

In the context of this pandemic, this service is what economics calls a “positive externality,” which is when someone’s private behavior leads to broader social benefits. Here, “shoppers” for Instacart and Amazon reduce the need for people to congregate, and are therefore lowering the systematic risk of COVID-19 for everyone, allowing society to flatten the curve of infection. The grocery-delivery business is booming, with Instacart saying they’ll immensely expand their workforce, by adding 300,000 shoppers. But “shoppers,” too, have complained that they’re not provided with basic protective gear that helps keep them safe, such as hand sanitizer and masks.

All this is why many organizations like Oxfam have launched campaigns demanding that grocery stores act to support their workers. First, workers are demanding paid sick leave. Recent legislation has made paid sick leave mandatory, but only for businesses with 500 or fewer employees, leaving companies like Amazon and Whole Foods off the hook. Governments are currently trying to address this loophole, and ensure that anyone working an essential business is provided with two weeks paid sick leave, if they either test positive for COVID-19 or have to quarantine. This is a decent start, but let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Paid sick leave is an intrinsic aspect of any developed nation, and so perhaps the pandemic will force the US to catch up and leave this legislation in place.

Supermarket workers are also demanding hazard pay, which is an increase in their hourly wage to account for the increased risk. This makes sense economically. The demand for such workers has surged; their value should rise accordingly. Stores have responded with a temporary wage increase; they know that without their workers, they won’t have a business and continue making money hand-over-fist. And yet many workers still feel that the proposed $13-per-hour raise is not worth their life.

Another primary complaint is that customers are not taking care to protect the health of workers by observing physical distancing rules, and generally trying to ensure a sanitized working environment—just this week, a grocery store worker shamed my housemate for bringing a reusable bag. As a result, many grocery stores now have a limit on the number of customers allowed in a store at a given time, with signs specifying six feet of spacing.

Some stores have put up plexiglass barricades to protect the checkout clerks, and some have provided free gloves and masks. But not all have done so, and so there needs to be legislative action to enforce these safety precautions for workers across the country. Otherwise, it will be up to the managers of individual stores to make the call.

The coronavirus has forced law-makers and company owners to take a more active, broader role in safeguarding the health and economic security of workers, at least temporarily, but as the effects ripple out, the pandemic has exposed another fatal flaw of our food-delivery system: the factory-farm, market-based supply of food production.

On the one hand, the supply of meat is suddenly in peril, as large, consolidated meat-processing plants in the Midwest and South have been forced to shut due to a high number of coronavirus cases among their workers. And on the other hand, with restaurants, cafes, and schools closed down, demand for milk, eggs, vegetables, and grains across the board has plummeted. As a result, farmers have destroyed an immense percentage of their own products, as The New York Times recently reported. Tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, destroying the crops. About 5% of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped into lagoons and manure pits, an amount that can double as the shut-down continues. And as most people don’t make onion rings or French fries at home (I haven’t had fries for about a month!), millions of pounds of onions and potatoes are being buried in ditches, left to rot.

In normal times, many people in the world are going hungry, and millions struggle to buy food. But with the millions of people who have lost their jobs, global hunger will rise, and putting food on the table will be even more difficult. That’s why this widespread destruction of fresh food is particularly terrible.

Yes, farmers say they have donated surpluses to food banks, but without the usual delivery chains, they simply do not know what to do with their food. Their machines, they explain, are geared to package food for restaurants, in large containers, not the smaller packages for retail at grocery stories. And so, because of this food supply-chain flaw, they simply throw the food away.

Food waste is a normal part of our market-based system, but the pandemic has magnified how abominable of a waste it is. Just as the coronavirus has forced us to address the safety and economic security of grocery-store workers, it should also force us to rectify the unsustainable flaws of our market-based food-supply system as a whole. In other words, food and health are rights, not commodities.

As my colleague Keith Hartwig, an artist, designer, and researcher working in the fields of Science and Technology Studies, wrote on Instagram in response to this Times report, “We have to go deeper, to reveal what food waste and these dystopian images signify: a deeply flawed food system built on economic subsidies, models of monoculture and overproduction, unfair and unstable global trade polices and labor practices, decades of economic disparity and social injustice, unequal access to and distribution of food resources, failed urban planning, and much much more.”

At the end of his post, Hartwig asks, “Will we emerge from this and revert to the old normal, or will we emerge from this ready to create a new normal? A normal no longer rooted in greed, but a normal rooted in equity fairness, resilience, foresight, and sustainability.”

Before the pandemic, it would have been highly unlikely that we would be able to create this new normal of food justice. But now is a time not only of great challenge, but of opportunity for systemic change. And if we want to ensure the next pandemic doesn’t cause a similar catastrophe, we’d be wise to fix the exposed flaws of our food-supply system, from production to delivery, so that it prioritizes health and sustainability.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

 

 

 

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