COVID-19 Lessons for the U.S. Food System?

Farmworker in California.

In 2020, the pandemic has stressed so many of the systems upon which our country relies. This is particularly true for food systems, with soaring rates of food insecurity among families like farm laborers working in close quarters over long hours in conditions ripe for the spread of the corona virus.

COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system (explore FERN’s map). Click on image to enlarge.

In the US, household food insecurity as a result of the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis, has doubled to over 23% of households, rising from around 10.5% of households (estimated by the USDA in 2019). The primary risks to food security have included dramatic losses in income, disruptions within food supply chains (domestically and internationally), and other shocks affecting food production. Paired with inadequate relief, millions of people have been left unemployed and struggling to put food on their table.

Cumulative COVID-19 cases by food sector since April. Click on image to enlarge.

Meanwhile, farm and food service workers have been deemed “essential” by the same leadership that largely overlooked critical aid for these workers. Occupations in the food system— already among the most dangerous jobs— have become potentially lethal during the pandemic. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network’s COVID-19 tracker, as of December 17th, more than 77,100 food system workers have contracted the virus. In the spring, food production facilities were coronavirus hotspots due to inadequate safety measures, resulting in over two hundred deaths. Meat packing plants in particular have received criticism for prioritizing profit and production over the health of their workers.

Urban farmer in Los Angeles harvests turnips for their CSA

Amidst this great fragility and the widening access gaps in communities across the United States, grassroots movements are gaining momentum as stopgaps to support those suffering. Shining examples include decentralized facets of our food system, often considered “alternative,” that have been praised during the pandemic. Community supported agriculture (CSAs) projects, food hubs and food co-ops, mutual-aid networks, community and home gardens have emerged as integral components for meeting communities’ needs of food and well-being. Local farms and producers have proven far more reliable in a crisis than the brittle industrial food supply chain.

Local food projects show how food sovereignty and food justice are taking center stage. Organizations and coalitions of activists are rising in response to the systemic and increasing lack of access to healthy food that particularly burdens low-income communities of color. As the cost of living rises and we witness the effects of resource scarcity, there is a growing need for vulnerable populations to have access to and a say over how and where food is produced and distributed. The movement for food sovereignty has been one attempt to reclaim rights and participation in the food system and to challenge the profit-driven corporate food industry. Because not everyone can reasonably access or afford locally farmed food, we need to fund and expand initiatives such as mobile markets, community gardens, and urban farms.

Will food workers get early access to a vaccine?

With the recent release of the vaccine, labor advocates, the food industry, and public health experts alike have united in agreement that food system workers should get the vaccine early. In my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, Smithfield Foods recently sent a letter to our county’s public health director passionately encouraging vaccine prioritization for their “heroic” workers. But labor advocates have substantial grounds for concern that vaccinating workers could be seen as a remedy for addressing the range of workplace exposure risks (including an ongoing lack of personal protective equipment, inconsistent testing, and congested work environments). Only time will tell if improved workplace safety protections will be considered just as important as these pleas on behalf of frontline workers for vaccines.

The outgoing Trump administration has entrenched the most pressing of threats to our food system by empowering giant agribusinesses to determine the rules. These moves include rewriting fundamental environmental protections that preserve the livelihoods of humans and animals, and failing to enforce both worker protections and livestock welfare. Such policies have the potential to be pivotal and, unfortunately, may not be much improved with the new Biden administration. The collaboration and revolving door between “big” agribusiness and the USDA is longstanding. Given the power of agribusiness, environmentalists are deeply concerned about the appointment of Tom Vilsack to return as the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Vilsack’s track record as Secretary of Agriculture under President Obama failed to create environmental progress for the nation’s farm system.

As we reach the end of 2020, it is my hope that policymakers at all levels learn from these crises and refocus on priorities to decentralize the food system through strengthening community food infrastructures. A robust local food system that is prepared for future crises must value affordable nutrition for consumers while ensuring flourishing livelihoods for every stakeholder and food system worker.


Elise Dudley – RCC Fellow, Furman University

Elise is an RCC Fellow and a Senior Sustainability Sciences student at Furman University. Elise aspires to pursue a career that integrates concerns for climate action, urban design, and public health for building regenerative food systems designed for circularity, justice, and ecosystem diversity. She is currently working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow on backyard gardening as a pathway towards more resilient urban foodscapes.

elise.dudle[email protected]


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