The United States is experiencing unprecedented levels of food
insecurity amid a pandemic-driven economic downturn. Americans are hungry—not
because there isn't enough food but because of widespread disruptions to
the U.S. food system. Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food
Security Program, answers critical questions on Covid-19 and
the U.S. Food System.
Q1: What’s happening to the food system in the United States?
A1: We’re observing a
number of overlapping, worrisome dynamics right now.
First, hunger in America is
skyrocketing. Economic downturn decreases household
incomes, limiting families’ ability to meet their dietary needs, and “the
scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent,” according to Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
Rates of hunger in the United States are also unprecedented, at least by
some measures. Recent research by the Brookings Institution
found that since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, over 40 percent of
households with mothers with children 12 and under reported household food
insecurity; in almost one
in five such households, the children were experiencing
food insecurity, with researchers concluding that “young children are
experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.”
As a result, demand at U.S. food banks is up by
an average of 70 percent compared to the same time last year, with nearly
40 percent of customers having never used food banks before the pandemic, according to a recent survey by Feeding America.
Some food banks are reporting a 200 percent increase compared to last year;
across the country, miles-long lines of cars are queuing
at food banks. No food bank in Feeding America’s network has closed as a
result of the pandemic, but almost 20 percent of food bank partners, like
food pantries and meal programs, have suspended or closed operations.
At the same time, prices at grocery
stores are rising. In April, prices showed their
greatest monthly increase in the past 50 years, led by the rising price of
meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (up 4.3 percent from March), cereals (up 2.9
percent), and fruits and vegetables (up 1.5 percent). The price increases
result from supply-side and demand-side pressures: due to worker illness,
meat plants are processing less product, reducing grocery stores’ supplies.
And with the closure of restaurants, consumers are eating more of their meals at home,
increasing demand at grocery stores as a result.
As a result of
restaurant and meat plant closures, farmers are being forced to dispose of
their product, so we’re seeing shockingly high rates of food loss.
One chicken processing company killed 2 million chickens in April;
another smashed 750,000 unhatched eggs each
week. In Minnesota alone, farmers have euthanized 90,000 pigs since the
onset of the pandemic. Unable to redirect products to new customers, farmers were dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each
day at the beginning of April. The Produce Marketing
Association estimates that by the end of April, $5 billion worth of fresh fruits and vegetables had
already been wasted. All of this is evidence that efficiency in the U.S. food
system has come at the cost of flexibility, argue some scholars: “Improving efficiency
can certainly be a good thing, especially if consumers benefit from cost
savings and access to more diverse foods. But the changes in recent years
have undermined other important goals, like the ability to adapt during a
crisis. When new barriers prevent food from reaching its markets, or demand
suddenly drops—both of which are happening now—the system falls apart.”
important is the fact that today’s food crisis is happening while food supplies in the United
States are ample. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently
projected U.S. wheat production to be up two percent this
year compared to last; pre-pandemic, animal stocks were healthy enough that
the USDA projected red meat production up three percent this year compared
to last and chicken up two percent, with egg and milk production also
projected higher year-on-year. Americans rely on imports to meet about 15
percent of total food consumption, and according to the USDA, “there are no
immediate risks of massive disruption in the global supply chain.” But food security encompasses more than food production,
and in the United States, people are hungry not because there’s not enough
food, but because of the system-wide disruptions explained here.
Q2: How are these
changes affecting consumers and workers?
A2: Within this context,
increases for the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition
Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs
have been sizeable but, arguably, insufficient. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides
for a 40 percent increase—an additional $2
billion—in monthly SNAP benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security
(CARES) Act provides an additional $500 million to WIC.
Accompanying these “plus-ups” are greater flexibilities for SNAP and WIC, like
ensuring that participants can still purchase food when WIC-eligible items
are out of stock. Yet as some experts point out: “The SNAP
provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act . . . were
intended to respond to the short-term effect of the health emergency, and
not the broader, likely longer-term economic crisis . . . We and many
economists and policymakers recommend raising SNAP benefits and modestly
expanding eligibility to address the effects of COVID-19 until the economy
shows solid signs of recovering from the downturn.”
In addition, the restaurant and food service
industry is in a freefall. In March and April, orders from
restaurants, sports arenas, schools, catering services, and other
establishments fell off a cliff: The National Restaurant
Association estimates the total shortfall in
restaurant and food service sales—including food service operations in the
lodging, arts/entertainment/recreation, education, health care, and retail
sectors—approached $80 billion during last two months alone. Restaurants have suffered the worst job losses of
any industry in the United States, having lost 6 million jobs–three
decades’ worth—since April. Tragically, many of those previously employed
in the food service industry are now themselves food insecure.
Q3: Will things get
better anytime soon?
A3: In many ways, it’s
too soon to say. The USDA cites several sources of uncertainty—potential
labor shortages, logistical constraints, changing consumption patterns—and
concludes that “we are dealing with an unprecedented crisis and there are
many unknowns that could shape the situation.”
However, we have a
few early signals. On food
prices, despite their recent rise, inflation at grocery
stores is expected to be low across 2020, but
month-to-month volatility will increase as supply chains, and the economy
generally, adjust to the pandemic. The USDA expects food-at-home prices to
increase between 0.5 and 1.5 percent this year compared to 0.9 percent in
2019 and 0.4 percent in 2018. On the meat supply chain, the USDA reports that plant closures
will restrict beef production for the rest of 2020, following strong levels
pre-pandemic, but that slaughter capacity is expected to recover in 2021,
with beef production “expected to set a record.” Egg production capacity is
likewise expected to resume growth in 2021. Nonetheless, high rates
of hunger are
expected to continue through the summer. Feeding America anticipates the food
insecure population will increase from 37 million Americans pre-pandemic to
54 million as a result of Covid-19.
Q4: Will the U.S.
food system look different after the pandemic?
A4: Yes, most likely.
It’s too early to know for sure, but we may see shorter, more
supply chains, as producers and consumers alike look to
reduce their susceptibility to shocks. One emergent “downstream” indicator
of this trend is the rise in direct-from-farm purchasing via
community-supported agriculture programs, as NPR and Civil Eats have reported.
farms—like most small businesses—often can’t absorb revenue
shortfalls for very long. Their cash reserves are too low. So, the
potential attrition of small family farms, foundational to local food
systems, may actually lead to an expanded market share for commercial
One study predicts that online grocery
sales will grow by about 40 percent in 2020.
Whatever form these
changes take, the food industry will play a central role in our eventual
economic revival. Today, images of food-system shocks and hungry families
are attracting significant attention at home and abroad. Americans—and the
world—will be watching the ways we rebuild our food system and reduce
hunger among the most vulnerable.
Caitlin Welsh is the
director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on
international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and
nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly,
all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should
be understood to be solely those of the author(s).