There are so many shocking images and developments as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses that it’s difficult to keep up with all of them. The public health and economic crises have fed off each other. Millions are out of work due to the shutdown and many of those workers have found themselves dependent on food banks to feed their families. Multiple ballparks have been transformed into food bank distribution centers, including Wrigley Field:
Meanwhile, all over the country we are seeing images of crops being tilled under and dairy products being dumped because the holders of the largest commercial food contracts have nowhere to sell their excess product. It’s been a horrifying twist that as millions struggle with food insecurity that many food producers who have had contracts with restaurants, schools and other institutions are destroying their food.
This week the picture got even more complicated as it was revealed that the largest hot spots for COVID-19 infection were meat packing plants across the country with case rates spiking in small towns all over the Midwest according to reporting from the Washington Post:
Three of the nation’s largest meat processors failed to provide protective gear to all workers, and some employees say they were told to continue working in crowded plants even while sick as the coronavirus spread around the country and turned the facilities into infection hot spots, a Washington Post investigation has found.
The actions by three major meat producers — Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods — continued even after federal guidelines on social distancing and personal protective equipment were published March 9, according to 25 interviews with employees, elected officials, regional health officials, union leaders and federal safety inspectors as well as dozens of documents, including worker complaints filed with local and federal officials.
Because of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, over the past several weeks Tyson, JBS and Smithfield have closed 15 plants, devastating rural communities and threatening the nation’s supply of beef and pork. Industry analysts say production is already down by at least 25 percent.
You can see the problem clearly in this map from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces investigative and explanatory reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health:
The prospect of a disruption to the meat supply prompted an Executive Order yesterday to mandate that meat packing plants remain open to avoid shortages. However, the original problem remains: meat packing plants were closed down because workers were not safe in those environments and an alarming number were testing positive for COVID-19. Even with the plants open there may be food shortages due to a lack of workers in these plants.
As I was trying to come to terms with the scope of this dilemma last night a friend reminded me of an outstanding idea another baseball writer had brought up recently on social media — supporting local grocers and food suppliers. A couple weeks ago (it feels like months, pandemic time is weird) Shakeia Taylor tweeted that she was supporting Forty Acres Fresh Market:
Forty Acres is a local food provider with a mission to make sure all of Chicago’s neighborhoods have access to fresh, nutritious food. As a bonus, for every box of produce you buy you have the option to purchase a box for a family in need:
It’s going to be a while until the spring and summer Farmer’s Markets return to Chicago and clearly this won’t fix the entire food supply chain, but if you’re in a position to support a local food cooperative or provider now is a great time to purchase a box or a partial share. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the overwhelming food insecurity problems laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the small farmers who grow and sell you food each spring are still out their doing great work to bring healthy and fresh food to everyone. Supporting their efforts is one small way you can make a big difference.