Spring Newsletter: The Importance of Healthy, Local Food!
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Feature Article COVID-19: The Great Food System Disruptor of Our Time By David Hill
Jennifer Clapp writes in Food, her seminal work on the global food system: Today, the average plate of food eaten in Europe or North America travels around 1,500 miles before it is consumed…Some say it’s not necessarily important for people to know all of the details of the functioning of the global food system – the web of relationships that span the production, processing, trade, and marketing of the food we eat…For the past forty years, the system has outwardly appeared to provide the advantages of a truly global and stable food supply that could be accessed by an ever larger range of people. Its stability and abundance brought lower prices in addition to expanding its geographical reach. So long as the system is providing cheap and readily available food, why question it?
Why indeed. How is that global food system doing now, in the midst of a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on so many aspects of our daily lives? You don’t need to look further than the shelves at your local grocery store to know the answer to that question. The COVID-19 has disrupted our food system in a multitude of ways and brought about widespread hardship, both to producers and consumers.
Food producers here and around the world have been hit hard financially due to traditional supply chains disappearing almost overnight. Great quantities of food that was produced for restaurants, school settings, and hotels suddenly have no market destination, with the result that many farmers cannot afford to keep producing food (even as they are forced to destroy the commodities and live animals they cannot now market). Dairy and egg producers are examples of this problem. Dozens of US meatpacking plants – hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus – had to be shut down. Similarly, foreign food suppliers who are very much dependent on that vast global food system, are not able to harvest due to a shortage of labor. Nor are they able to ship their products long distance as they were accustomed to doing. Think Columbian coffee growers.
Unfortunately, federal assistance for food producers was, for many of them, too little too late. Farm bankruptcies rose 23% in March 2020 compared to March 2019. And a lack of farm labor will likely create additional hardship and stresses for the summer and fall harvests.
Food consumers have likewise been hurt. Not only have food quantities and selection been negatively impacted, but food prices have spiked as a result of COVID-19-related disruptions. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that prices for eggs, meat and bakery goods recently recorded their greatest single month increase since February 1974 (a period of 46 years). The price of eggs increased 16% from March to April. Total animal-based protein increased 4%. The price of cereal and bakery goods went up almost 3%, the highest single monthly increase on record. Prices for fruits and vegetables increased 1.5%.
The federal government has stepped in to offer food producers needed assistance. The Cornavirus Food Assistance Plan is providing $16 billion to hard hit farmers and ranchers. Another $3 billion of relief is coming in the form of the Farmers to Families Food Box program.
Municipalities as well as individuals and organizations, both public and private, in every sector of the food system are struggling to study, to adapt, and to devise creative ways to deal with the disruptions to the food system. One example of those studying the problem is a new app developed through a partnership between Microsoft and Purdue University that collects data and shows, county by county, the potential risks to agricultural. The Purdue Food and Agricultural Vulnerability Index can show the amount of food production at the local level that is at risk due to the spread of the coronavirus among farm workers.
Numerous examples exist around the country of committed groups attempting to fill the sudden yawning gaps in the food system. Perhaps you read about the imaginative college students who picked fresh produce on a farmer’s fields – food that would have otherwise rotted there – and then rented a truck and delivered the produce to the local food bank. Or the effort in the Sacramento, California area to pay local restaurateurs to provide meals to local seniors and other “at risk” groups. Funding for the program is coming from a mix of FEMA, state funds and local jurisdictions. Another effort in Boston, Massachusetts – developed by the CommonWealth Kitchen and funded with a grant from the Boston Resiliency Fund – will pay local minority-run restaurants to provide free meals to needy families and seniors. Numerous state departments of agriculture have quickly developed interactive maps and directories to assist consumers in locating farms and other sources of fresh food. Farmers markets throughout the country have organized drive-through pickups.
Many of us who grow food here in The Valley have also looked for creative ways to help provide fresh food to those suddenly in need. The on-site community garden at the Desert Botanical Garden is just one example. Even while volunteers are no longer able to help in the garden as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been able to continue our weekly food donations to a local food bank. In addition, I’ve used the online Nextdoor app to connect with seniors and other shut-ins who are not able to venture out of their homes to purchase needed fresh produce. I now harvest produce from the community garden and make same-day deliveries to those individuals who live in and around the Arcadia neighborhood.
No doubt, all of us will continue to be challenged by the myriad ways in which the ongoing pandemic has disrupted our food system. Even while we’re all busy coping with the new normal, it’s time that we begin rethinking about the food system in terms of resilience and how the local food system needs the resources to better respond to circumstances such as the current COVID-19 pandemic has created. Making more local land available for food production and connecting growers to that land figure prominently among the many challenges we now face. Let’s use this time wisely to improve our local food system and improve the lives of our friends and neighbors.
David Hill is Coordinator of the On-Site Community Garden at Desert Botanical Garden and a board member of the American Community Gardening Association. He also serves on the board of AzCLT.
Sharma is a native Arizonan, born and raised. She received her B.S. in Biology from Arizona State University. After graduating, Sharma worked as a Wildlife Biologist for 4 years working for various agencies and entities (in different states).
Sharma then attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, with the intent of becoming a nonprofit environmental attorney. Having interned as law clerk for three environmental organizations, Sharma was headed towards this goal. During this time and growing up she did not appreciate the importance of agriculture to society and she did not know about the origination of food in general.
As luck would have it, Sharma was unable to obtain a job working for a nonprofit environmental organization and so she practiced general civil litigation for 7 years (in CA, DC and AZ). Why that was a fortunate turn of events was because it led Sharma to where she is now, one of the greatest proponents for agriculture and now educated about the value and importance of agriculture, about how it provides habitat to wildlife and is our food supply.
After 7 years, she decided to give up practicing law and pursue her conservation passion. Going back to the conservation world, Sharma took a job with AZ Land and Water Trust (ALWT) and got to work with Arizona farmers and ranchers to help conserve agriculture and open space (with conservation easements). This is where Sharma was able to meet the Supervisors in Arizona's 42 Natural Resource Conservation Districts (farmers, ranchers and other private landowners volunteering their time to conserve agriculture and natural resources).
This is when Sharma truly became educated about how vital agriculture is to society and changed her prior misconceptions and negatives views about farmers and ranchers in general. She worked for ALWT for approximately 4 years and then accepted a position with the AZ Department of Agriculture as their Legislative Liaison, eventually becoming the Marketing Manager. After approximately 3 years, a job with the AZ Assn. of Conservation Districts (AACD) came up which she accepted.
The AACD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports and promotes the 42 Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCDs) in our state. Having just joined the AACD in October of 2019 and working now as the Conservation Education Director, she is able to educate others about the NRCDs and the importance of agriculture and of conservation. Sharma joined the AzCLT Board in December of 2019. She is also a graduate of Project CENTRL (center for rural leadership) and she is a member of the International Leadership Alumni Conference Advisory Board and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council. Sharma is also a member of the AZ Dept. of Agriculture's Food & Agriculture Policy Advisory Committee.
AzCLT Membership! Time to join.. time to renew!
Annual membership is still only $10. If you can give more, it will go to support the growth of AzCLT. Or you can designate your additional contribution to support our "Fund for Community Land." This fund will be used for land purchase, legal fees, appraisals etc to help in the acquisition of land for affordable housing, farming, community gardens, and other community endeavors. We welcome your support!
Checks for membership plus any additional gift you would like to make may be sent to AzCLT, 1702 E Glendale Avenue, Phoenix AZ 85020. If you would like to pay by card, please let us know the amount in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will send you an invoice for that amount via Square.
The Board of Directors will meet on the first Sunday of July (July 5th) from 3-5pm. If you would like to attend, please send your request to email@example.com. A Zoom link will be sent to you by return email.