Some of the best food-industry reporting out there is generated by the Los Angeles Times, the venerable daily known for its bare-knuckle coverage of both Southern California and the rest of the world. The reason for this is somewhat obvious. California is a monolithic agricultural powerhouse, and anything that affects the state’s food industry either directly or indirectly affects the rest of the United States.
Last week, the Times published a sobering story about how COVID-19 could lead to a shortage of experienced workers in our agricultural supply chains. It was a deep dive into an underreported problem, a refreshing change from shallow reporting on panic buying and the hoarding of toilet paper. These sensationalistic stories aren’t fictitious of course, but the reality is far more complex and nuanced than the headlines might lead you to believe. As Amanda Charland, our Director of Cooperative Engagement, shared in a meeting recently, “There’s this myth out there that some monster hoarder is causing all this. The reality is that we all play a part.”
Right now virus fears are contributing to shortages of canned food, pasta, breads, household goods, paper products, first-aid supplies, and other products generally thought of as staple groceries. That’s not exactly a newsflash to anyone these days. Where I work, my whip-smart colleagues have had to develop on-the-fly, creative, nimble solutions to help address this problem in order to beef up our availability of the essentials.
But the bustling summer growing season is coming soon, and the availability of produce in grocery stores coast to coast may turn out to be an equally challenging problem. The gist of the issue, according to the Times, is that a nearly $50-billion agricultural industry in California is bracing for a massive, unprecedented potential labor shortfall, one that could impact farms and food retailers nationwide. Clearly, this would put a bottleneck in the nation’s supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, just when many Americans need all the produce they can get in order to keep their immune systems strong in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Why the shortfall? In many agricultural-rich regions of the United States, foreign workers are the backbone of seasonal labor, and COVID-19 has created a widespread shutdown of consulates that process agricultural H2-A visas in Mexico. The timing couldn’t be worse, since harvest time for summer crops is just around the corner.
California strawberry and lettuce farmers will probably be the first to feel the strain, affecting massive producers and growers in the rich farm regions of the state’s central coast and in Salinas Valley. The fruits and vegetables grown in these regions are shipped to stores nationwide.
The USDA has flexed its muscle here, pressuring the State Department to process visas even though consulates are closed all across the border. “Assurance from USDA and State were not enough to satisfy growers, shippers and contractors in California,” the Times reported, “who have been pressing for more clear answers as the scope of the pandemic comes into focus.” The end result could be a surreal scenario: empty produce bins in grocery stores across the United States while perfectly good food rots in the fields.
I don’t share all this to raise undue awareness about yet another monumental problem caused by COVID-19. Instead, what it reminds me of is a salient point we’ve been making in the food co-op business for as long as I’ve been a part of it, going on 20 years now. Our food system is a complex, interrelated, human-centric thing. There is no unimportant part of the system. Everything—and everyone—matters.
Fortunately, we live in a region replete with local growers and local supply chains. Our own Connecticut River Valley is a rich, fertile region of rolling hills and small family farms that puts a lot of good food on a lot of local tables. In the Upper Valley, we’re lucky enough that we don’t necessarily have to rely on monolithic farms 3,000 miles away.
Still, how this affects all of us remains to be seen. But to me the key takeaway is this: Remember the food system is no different than anything else. We all play a part, and we all need each other. If the virus’ impact on the food industry has reminded me of anything, it’s that we’re all in this together.
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