Food Security in the Age of COVID-19: The First Harvest of the Season’s Bounty

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Earlier this year, I wrote about what I as doing to help my mother and one of my sisters improve their food security: plant individual Victory Gardens (Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19). I did the easy part. I called a local, family -owned North Carolina garden center and ordered some plants to be delivered. And they did the hard part, the planting, watering, , and tending. Now, they’re beginning to reap the rewards.

Food security is on my mind, as I’m finishing up an article for a new journal, the Eastern Review, comparing the availability, of sufficient food, at normal prices, in Calcutta so far during the pandemic, to the terrible wartime Bengal famine, when the British shipped food that Indians had produced to other parts of the Empire, to be stored, while 4 million Indians starved (see Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security, for further details).

So far, the issue has yet to rise to widespread starvation – at least in richer countries – although India has badly managed the situation for its migrant workers, locking down the country, and leaving many of them far from home, excluded from their daily work for hire, and with little recourse but to try and make it home to their villages. Some died en route (see Saving Citizens, Killing the Poor: India and COVID-19).

Nonetheless, the UN warned in June that many people would be vulnerable to food shortages as the pandemic continues (Food Security: UN Warns People Are Vulnerable to Shortages as the COVID-19 Pandemic Continues).

For those fortunate enough to live in richer countries, the problem so far has been of shortages of particular items, rather than outright want, as shoppers cleared shelves of popular foodstuffs when countries went into lockdown. Yet other, similarfood  items remained available. Outbreaks of COVID-19, particularly in meatpacking plants, have made the situation a bit more precarious, not only in the US, but in places such as Germany.

Today’s Wall Street Journal wrote about pressures on food supplies, From Flour to Canned Soup, Coronavirus Surge Pressures Food Supplies, focusing on food produced by large food companies:

Grocers are having trouble staying stocked with goods from flour to soups as climbing coronavirus case numbers and continued lockdowns pressure production and bolster customer demand.

Manufacturers including General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co. and Conagra Brands Inc. say they are pumping out food as fast as they can, but can’t replenish inventories. Popular items such as flour, canned soup, pasta and rice remain in short supply.

As of July 5, 10% of packaged foods, beverages and household goods were out of stock, up from 5% to 7% before the pandemic, according to market-research firm IRI.

“We are running flat out,” said Conagra’s Chief Executive Sean Connolly. He said Conagra won’t be able to build up inventory of certain brands, such as Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice, unless demand slows or it further increases manufacturing capacity.

Food makers and grocers expect prolonged shelter-in-place orders and restrictions on restaurants, as well as the battered economy, to result in a longer stretch of eating at home. Added safety measures at plants are slowing operations, too. There is enough food in the U.S. to keep people fed, executives say, but every product might not be available everywhere while inventories are strained.

Some suppliers have had to resort to rationing of certain items, such as paper products:

Many retailers in states where cases are surging, including Texas-based H-E-B LP, are reinstating rationing on high-demand items including paper products. They say their distributors are still capping the amount of fast-selling products that can be ordered at one time.

Alas, I only expect the problem to worsen, as the pandemic is far from under control in much if not most of the United States; cases are spiking in many places and there seems to be no consensus let alone a coordinated national response as to what to do,

The Journal article concentrated on measures food behemoths are making to tweak their supply chains and improving their manufacturing systems. But it did not address whether some more far-reaching reorganization of national food production and distribution was necessary – particularly, as now looks obvious, COVID-19 looks likely to be with us for some time.

I note that just because the WSJ fail to outline  a possible solution, does not mean it’s not apparent to others. Capital & Main wrote about the problem in May, and championed a return to more local food supplies, Growing Local is Key to Providing Food Security in Times of Crisis, To be sure, this is an easier case to be made by a publication based in California, where much of the country’s food is grown (at least that proportion that is still produced domestically):

In kitchens all over Los Angeles, we’re riding out this pandemic by asking: What’s to eat? It’s not an easy question anymore. It can take hours to get into a grocery store, and it might still be short on pasta or bacon or flour. This novel coronavirus has shown us that eating together is at the core of our humanity, but empty shelves have also revealed the mad fragility of our industrialized food system. It’s just too big, too centralized, and too easy to disrupt.

The fact that the president has used a wartime law to keep meat-processing plants open, at the risk of worker health and safety, is case in point. The plants are so huge that each one represents a significant percentage of the nation’s meat supply. Distribution problems have dairies in Wisconsin and Ohio pouring millions of gallons of milk into ditches, and California farmers – including friends of mine – plowing finished crops back into the ground.

The solution is to diversify and build regional farming, storage, processing and distribution systems. The first step is to shore up our food security with small, local farms. We need community gardens and backyard tomato patches, urban mini-farms and basil on the balcony. To break the corporate grip on our food, we need to stop looking to fields far away and look closer to home.

After a short historical account of how the US got into this fix,  basically by replacing since the Second World War a diversified system based on small scale farms with a centralized corporate system, Capital & Main concludes:

Now is the time to implement a more diversified, less toxic and more human-scaled agriculture, and to keep it close to home. Local food production is a key to surviving a pandemic — as well as adapting to climate change and other acts of resiliency. Recognizing this, California passed Assembly Bill 551 (AB551), the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, in 2013. It gives tax breaks to city landowners growing food on their vacant lots. Los Angeles passed its own version of that law in 2017, but of the thousands of eligible sites identified, only six applications have been approved. Six! Creating programs to install irrigation or deliver city-made compost or organic seedlings would remove some barriers.

The problems of scale and location are only a few of the issues with conventional farming, of course, but this is where we can start. Growing local food is how we take our lives back. Let’s plant our way to food security.

The Harvest Arrives

The problem is serious and will persist, and I encourage all readers to give it some attention, to think about what you can do either to encourage or undertake local food production. But this is not going to be a downer post, as I like so many others, am suffering from COVID-19 fatigue.  And I wanted today to find something to be positive about.

So, I thought I would share with readers how it cheered me to no end to receive photos from both mother and sister as they are beginning  to reap the 2020 harvest. They pick the vegetables and then send me photographs.

Mom has had the earliest results. She’s already eaten all her spinach, and her broccoli plants have produced their crop – more than she could consume at the time, so she blanched the excess, and has frozen it.

She’s chomping on cucumbers and her summer squash and zucchini plants have gone into overdrive – so much so that I sent her a simple recipe for what I do when I find myself with extra squash – the summer variety  as well as many of what Americans, following the Italian, call zucchini, and the British, following the French, call courgettes. These are vegetables I confess I don’t go out of my my way to prepare. I guess I’m not what you call a squash lover, although I do like the Bengali dish, pur bhara doi Potol, parwal- pointed gourd-  stuffed with coconut, poppy seed, and mustard and cooked in a mustard gravy; I like the way the seeds pop when eaten. For all I know, parwal may not actually be a squash, but it sure is tasty and I had some for dinner last night.

My zucchini dish is nonetheless a good way to use extra squash.I hesitate to call it a recipe, because every time I make something, it’s different, and uses whatever I have on hand. And as vegetable gardeners know, once your squash start to appear that summer, it just keeps coming. Anyway, cut some into matchsticks, saute those in a bit of butter or olive oil (or both) and a bit of garlic,if you so choose, then add  with some prawns or fish thrown and cooked lightly. Maybe a splash of wine or a touch of stock or cream, and then toss over some pasta, perhaps with a handful chopped scallions, or whatever fresh herbs you have on hand , and perhaps some halved cherry tomatoes as well). (British readers may detect the influence of Elizabeth David in how I provide vague instructions rather than a hard and fast recipe. More guidelines or suggestions than a formula, which drives some people crazy.)

Mom has eaten some of her blueberries, although she was not expecting much in the bushes  first year in her garden. The only thing that’s not thrived has been the cauliflower plants, although I understand that vegetable is a bit  difficult to grow successfully. A pity, because I love cauliflower cheese – not the school cafeteria version, but  a gratin of just cooked vegetable, in a bit of cream or white sauce, laced with good cheddar and perhaps with a sprinkle of toasted homemade bread crumbs on top. I love vegetable gratins.and  have experimented with many varieties of cheese  – gruyere, cheddar, parmesan, manchego, even leftover blue varieties.

Mom has a ton of tomatoes, too, although none are yet ripe; I sent her four plants each of a modern beeksteak variety, German Johnson, and cherry tomatoes. Last summer, when I visited for her birthday and ended up staying the month, I made lots of tomato soup, and tomato sauce, and she froze that to last the winter, as well as lots and lots of fruit freezer jam (see Summertime and the Living is Easy: In Praise of Farmers Markets).

As for my sister, she harvested her first crop last week: cucumbers, and zucchini – although the picture wasn’t quite clear, and some of what I thought were zucchini may actually be peppers. Not the bell variety, although I sent her some of those, but some long lean ones that I thought would be perfect if stuffed. Over the weekend, she sent a lovely picture of her first tomato, a pink Brandywine, looking large and luscious and perfectly ripe. I also sent her some Cherokee Purple, German Johnson, and cherry tomato plant, and some blueberry bushes, and aubergine plants. Just now, I cannot  remember what else.

So thus far, this experiment in enhancing family  personal gardens is shaping up nicely. It’s also inspired another sister and her family to plant their own garden

The last time I wrote about this topic, many readers shared their gardening plans for the 2020 summer.

How’s it going?

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