Coronavirus is breaking the food supply chain
Now, in the second month of the COVID-19 shutdown in Connecticut, the disconnect between what officials say about the food supply and what the economically challenged are experiencing is obvious: hundreds of people in cars lined up for bags of free groceries, half empty grocery store shelves, and food banks and pantries just flat out of food.
Officials up and down government insist the U.S. has plenty of food, including Gov. Ned Lamont, who last week called it “anxiety” about a shortage rather than an actual shortage.
“Our food supply in this state, in this country, in our food banks, is strong,” Lamont said.
Those on the ground say otherwise, and some are calling for a re-evaluation and better coordination of food systems, possibly from the state level.
This is the second of three stories.
For now, it’s evident the coronavirus pandemic has created massive problems and unprecedented challenges related to state and federal food policies or systems along two paths. One challenge is in maintaining the food supply itself. The other is in administering the various financial assistance streams needed to keep Connecticut and other Americans fed.
Parts of the supply chain have been threatened by COVID-19. And consumers may not be feeling the impacts of the most pronounced disruption yet – the ripple effect from the closure of several meat processing plants that closed after COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers.
Wednesday, Tyson suspended operations at its largest pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. That follows Smithfield Foods shutting pork processing plants in Wisconsin and Missouri after the closure of its Sioux Falls, SD plant — one of the largest single-source COVID hotspots in the country.
There are reports of more than a dozen pork, beef and chicken plants now closed in several states including Colorado and Pennsylvania. That will likely exacerbate the potential for shortages and high prices beyond what was already occurring as shoppers cleared out grocery stores and food-strapped food banks found themselves competing with the general public in retail establishments.
Long haul trucking to get produce from the two biggest growing areas – California and Florida – has had a tough time meeting the faster purchasing pace, especially with the additional time now needed for cleaning trucks and supplies and ensuring the health of drivers traveling through COVID-19-stricken states.
That combined with large-scale institutional closures – universities, schools, hotels, restaurants and more – have resulted in produce being destroyed. Food banks, and especially food pantries, often have zero or limited means to store items like that. Connecticut is making an effort to get some of the milk surplus from its dairy farms into the system.
Then there are the government assistance programs – SNAP being the most direct-to-consumer. Trump administration plans to tighten work requirements are on hold as people flood the states with applications.
In Connecticut, the statewide anti-hunger advocacy group End Hunger Connecticut reports its call center has seen a five-fold increase in calls since the shutdown started. The Department of Social Services reports that in the last month about three-quarters of its application activity was for SNAP. Before that it was around 44%.
SNAP enrollments at the end of March were around 360,000 in 212,000 households. They’re expected to go above 400,000 by the end of April. During the 2008-2009 recession they topped out around 410,000.
Deidre Gifford, the DSS commissioner, said the department is getting applicants processed well within the federally mandated limit. “We’re holding our own,” she said. But it still takes time for the applications to be approved and the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to be issued. In the meantime those folks are also hitting food pantries and soup kitchens.
“It’s important to emphasize the food supply is good,” Gifford said. “We haven’t seen any evidence that there’s a cut in the amount of food available.”
People encountering perpetually empty store shelves for some staple products, like rice and pasta, and those trying to get food for service agencies would say otherwise. Kate Lombardo, executive director of the independent Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County and a veteran of the 2008-2009 recession, has found herself at grocery stores trying to buy what she could find. At one store, she said: “I saw chicken and bought it all and paid for it by check.”
“We need somebody who can totally coordinate the entire picture,” she said.
Pressure points and valves
The financial pressure on those needing food assistance in the state should be eased a little by two rounds of nearly $16 million each in emergency SNAP benefits dispersed to nearly 108,000 residents who did not receive the maximum benefit allotment for their household size in March and April.
Another chunk of funding will come as what’s known as Pandemic EBT. It was approved as part of one of the coronavirus benefit bills and adds SNAP benefits to families with children normally receiving free- and reduced-price lunch. DSS is working with the Department of Education to implement it. But they still have to find the food to buy, and because of restrictions on what they’re allowed to purchase, that can be difficult for them.
Another pressure valve for food access involves school lunches themselves, which use a lot of government surplus products. With schools closed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized the continuation of free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches for students who qualify. But for this, a waiver was granted to provide them in grab-and-go form and without the children present.
Since the shutdowns, about 1.5 million meals have been served; that’s about 110,000 to 115,000 daily. By contrast, in summer the schools provide about 37,000 meals daily and about 1.7 million over the entire season.
But even with the additional SNAP funding and the availability of school lunches, Connecticut SNAP recipients face a hurdle that is particularly troublesome due to the nature of the health emergency.
The state is not among the nearly one dozen states nationwide – including New York, California and Florida – that allow SNAP recipients to use online ordering for delivery. So in the COVID-19 environment, which adds an element of risk when going to stores, SNAP recipients have no choice. And in many cities where food access for at-risk populations is already difficult, sometimes requiring multiple legs of public transportation, getting to the store is now dangerous as well.
A few stores in the state are quietly skirting the rules and allowing such ordering by using mobile EBT readers, like the kind used at farmers markets, at the delivery site.
Gifford said the state is looking into online SNAP ordering, but right now is consumed with implementing Pandemic EBT.
Perhaps causing the biggest annoyance is the slow pace of getting two longstanding programs into the pipeline – the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP – pronounced TEA-fahp) and the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Under an initial TEFAP allocation, the state’s two major food banks will share $3.8 million. Most of it will be provided as food, with some of the money going toward administrative costs. But none of it is expected until July. Another tranche was approved in the most recent stimulus package, but the allocation isn’t known yet, let alone the delivery date.
“The issue for us in U.S. at the moment is we have an abundant food supply,” said a frustrated Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who has fought in support of food access, safety and funding for decades. “What are the logistics of how you can prevent people from going hungry?”
“We need this on such a massive scale that only the full weight of federal government can solve this,” she said.
She and others point out that no one is addressing how to get the industrial portions of food used by restaurants and other institutions repackaged for food bank and consumer use or into the food system in some other way to help alleviate the current shortages. Nor has anyone explored how to open up some of the massive commercial kitchens, like those at the casinos or at shuttered universities, to do some of that work and provide other food services.
“We’ve got to think outside the box on this,” she said. DeLauro said she’s already talked with Jose Andres, the chef who formed World Central Kitchen to help feed the residents of Puerto Rico after devastating hurricanes. The organization is now doing the same in cities all over the United States.
DeLauro also has scathing criticism of the USDA, which she feels is sitting on CCC funds that could be used in some of these efforts instead of how the Trump administration has used that money so far – to pay farmers who have suffered due to the Trump trade war with China.
“We have a USDA that does not think outside of the box; in fact it is hampering us,” she said. “You’re looking at people who are myopic and don’t have sense of urgency. The U.S. has food. No one should go hungry.”
And while there’s little luxury for long-term planning in the middle of the current crisis, let alone time for after-action analysis, DSS’s Gifford agreed it will be needed.
“There is going to be a lot of reexamination of how this process has played out in every single area of our lives,” she said. “There will be an opportunity to see what went well, and what might have gone differently.”
She might want to start by looking at New Haven.
Then there’s New Haven
Latha Swamy is New Haven’s food systems policy director. She’s the only one in the state, and one of only about two-dozen in the country. The position was created in 2016 by then Mayor Toni Harp and Swamy took over at the end of 2018. She already has gained national recognition for her work which she describes as “to support and help manifest community-led efforts that envision and create an environmentally sustainable and socially just food system.”
Swamy doesn’t do direct services, but helps coordinate those who do address the systemic challenges in the city’s food system –from production and processing to distribution and purchasing. To that end she considers herself a convener and communicator and has spent much of her time on the job forging partnerships among the organizations that focus on food access and equity.
She’s a food traffic cop of sorts for New Haven. “What I’m trying to do is streamline what’s going on as best as I can,” she said.
Several months ago she helped establish a Coordinated Food Assistance Network, C-FAN, to interconnect the city’s 30 food pantries, 10 soup kitchens and others into a more integrated operation capable of instantly ramping up in an emergency.
“When this crisis popped up – it was really the type of structure we needed,” Swamy said. “We were able to shift to an emergency food role to address immediate needs and structural injustices.”
She started daily C-FAN calls – now scaled back to twice a week as the home delivery system has grown from 16 drivers on 19 routes making 73 deliveries to 51 drivers on 64 routes making 319 deliveries. And she reached out to everyone. One of her first calls was to the local Meals on Wheels, part of the well-known national meal service for seniors.
“What would you need to be able to do more? Where are the places people could fill in?” Swamy said she asked Erin Harkrader, the director of Meals on Wheels in the New Haven area. It services thousands of seniors in 13 communities.
Harkrader, now juggling more than 100 new referrals, said Swamy was very helpful as the organization pivoted away from congregate meal operations to all home deliveries. “She was able to work with us on some of the food safety concerns,” Harkrader said. “She was invaluable.”
Swamy also got them connected to Vertical Church in West Haven, already running pantries there and in New Haven. Vertical Church picked up some of the delivery burden for Meals on Wheels while also retooling its pantry operations and picking up the slack for other pantries that were having difficulty staying open.
And Swamy has now launched a Food Resources during COVID-19 website that includes an interactive map for finding everything.
There are lessons here for other municipalities and probably for the state as a whole, Swamy said. “It goes back to the way I approach my work – working from a foundation of food justice. Dealing with the root causes and structural injustices that preceded the emergency.”
The reason Connecticut’s other communities are feeling the stresses of food access in the current situation, she said, is because they don’t have the underlying structure that New Haven has.
“Really,” she said. “It goes back to the imbalances of power and resources in the first place.”
This story was updated on April 23 to include information on a newly launched website for food resources in New Haven during COVID-19.
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