How The Pandemic Exposed Our Broken Food System

May 20, 2020

As Maine’s food pantries struggle to keep up with increased demand, hunger relief organizations around the country are calling for long-term changes to minimize the kinds of supply-chain issues that hit supermarkets hard early on in the pandemic.

Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale says the U.S. needs more local and regional food systems that aren’t completely market-based.

Miale told All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty that the pandemic reveals just how vulnerable the nation’s food supply system has become.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Miale: The U.S. food supply, like so many other industries, has really been operating on almost a just-in-time delivery model. When the green bean inventory was depleted, all of a sudden, here’s the delivery of green beans. And they could do this because they had, you know, decades and decades of consumer buying behavior that for many products doesn’t change a lot. And so, what happened with COVID-19 is consumer behavior. As we tend to do, we start to panic. And when we start to panic, humans like to hoard. I suppose animals do too, right? It’s no different than squirrels burying all those nuts in the fall. And so all of a sudden, the buying patterns changed significantly. A representative from Hannaford described it to me as all of a sudden it was the week of Christmas, week after week after week after week, and the supply chains just could not keep up with that kind of increased demand. And then that almost exacerbated the problem even more, because the minute people started to see, ‘Oh, wow, there really isn’t enough food,’ they started hoarding even more.

Flaherty: With respect to the food supply chain we have seen reporting on farmers and food producers having to dump food, even as organizations like yours are having trouble getting food. Why is this happening?

Fresh food can really only be distributed so broadly, because it’s so perishable. And so it’s being able to get that product into a form that can be shelf stable, that can last long enough to then get it out more broadly. And so much of the food, especially the processed food — and I’m not talking heavily processed, even just things like canned vegetables and frozen vegetables — most of those products come from outside of the country. We grow very little food here that is not for the fresh market. A lot of that fresh market, too, goes out to institutions and restaurants. And that market obviously went completely away. So you had farmers who are growing for this fresh market that had suddenly gone away, but the manufacturers were already filled with what they were already manufacturing for the grocery stores. You can’t just all of a sudden build a factory. Maine farmers right now are plowing anything under because they’re just starting to grow. But certainly, if the restaurant and the institutional market does not open up again, that is significantly going to hurt Maine farmers. And they’ll be even more affected because Maine has absolutely no food processing capability on any kind of meaningful scale. We did have an issue a few weeks ago with the milk supply. We had an abundance of fluid milk, more than the grocery stores could handle and more than we could handle. There’s only so much fluid milk we can take at a time because it only has a 14-day shelf life on it. And one of the issues came up was, ‘Well, why can’t we get it to a UHT processor, which processes fluid milk into a shelf stable form?’ And the problem was that the closest UHT processor was in New York. There was no economic model that made sense. It would cost so much money that it just didn’t make any sense. And they ended up dumping a lot of milk.

Why are we in this situation?

Kristen Miale
Credit Good Shepherd Food Bank

The food supply has been allowed to operate completely as a free market, which means that it’s all been about companies maximizing profit. And so if that’s been the driving factor, then food companies are going to drive as much cost out of the equation as possible. So by having food companies operate purely under the premise that their goal is to maximize profits over everything, then they’re going to find a way to make the food as cheap as possible. And that means cutting corners.

What would you like to see change — not necessarily in an emergency situation, but on a regular, everyday kind of basis, when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic — that would enable people who need food to be able to get it while farmers don’t have an excess that they need to get rid of?

I would love to see a more concentrated effort to support more regional food systems. The Northeast Region still imports something like more than 80% of our food and imports it not only from other parts of the country, but largely from other parts of the world. And that’s purely because of the economics of it. I would like to see us as a country and even as a state recognize that I think it’s in our own interest to have a certain amount of our food supply be produced locally and regionally. To me, that’s where the role of government comes in to help support those kinds of initiatives. Right now, all of the agriculture supports that our country does is for massive, huge scaled, ag businesses. Medium sized farms are aren’t helped by the way our ag policy is set up. It’s really just the massive agribusinesses that we just don’t have here in New England. So that’s what I’d like to see change is just a real policy shift to recognizing the value of supporting regional food systems. The free market is not going to be able to support them, because the economics don’t make sense. And you can’t expect consumers to be willing to pay higher prices for food in order to have this regional food system. I think there are some consumers that would be willing to do that. But most consumers can’t afford to do that. I believe that communities and, I guess, therefore, governments need to have a strategy and goals that keep a certain percentage of food production, under some kind of regional influence, because it’s too critical of a sector to have it so completely outside of our control and our ability to respond to needs within our own community. And because it is a sector that impacts so many different layers of community, to relinquish all control on such an important sector I just think lends itself to situations like we’re in now.

This interview is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.” For more in the series, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.

Originally published May 19, 2020 at 4:38 p.m. ET.