District Fray Magazine: Connect the Dots
“Repairing Broken Links in the Regional Food Supply Chain
Our food system today is a textbook paradox. We see thousands of gallons of milk dumped away, tons of produce left to rot and millions of animals euthanized. Yet miles-long lines form at food banks and grocery stores have spotty inventory. Consumers have been rightfully outraged at the food waste and flummoxed by the incongruities. How can these two realities be so incompatible, yet exist side by side?
The simple answer is the food system wasn’t built for this. For decades, our supply chain has been methodically consolidated and streamlined to make cheap food fast – from fields to grocery shelves. The result is a massive, centralized system with little room for error.
Add a global pandemic, and the whole thing starts to crumble. The little cracks that have always existed widen and reach a breaking point, and the operations in motion are too big and too rigid to quickly pivot.
“A large ship is hard to turn around,” says Dena Leibman, executive director of Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
The disconnects we see in the headlines are a result of broken links in the supply chain at various points, namely packaging, distribution and labor. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 30 percent of daily calories for the average American are consumed outside of the home – at restaurants, schools, universities, hotels and other institutions. When these settings abruptly closed, demand shifted heavily to grocery stores.
Producers who supply large-scale institutions were then stuck with mountains of inventory and costly obstacles in reaching direct-to-consumer markets. Automated packaging plants would require millions of dollars in investment to change from half-pints of milk for school lunches to gallon containers for the grocery store, for instance. Then there’s the issue of sheer volume – people don’t consume potatoes and onions in the same capacity at home as they would french fries and onion rings at ball parks and restaurants. Plus, when the major meat processing plants closed because of Covid cases, farmers were left with growing animals but nowhere to take them and no income to feed them.
With all these challenges, size matters. For local and regional food systems, we’re seeing a different story.
“It’s just much more nimble a system,” Leibman says. Small farmers have pivoted, collaborated, and gone into overdrive to adapt to market changes and get their food to people who need it. Nonprofit organizations have also stepped up to help.”
Featured photo of Rory Chipman. Courtesy of Willowsford Farm.