How Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Change the Way We Eat?

How Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Change the Way We Eat?

By Jenna Adrian-Diaz
Over the past 10 years, the troubling realities of the food supply chain became apparent. The coronavirus pandemic has made them impossible to ignore.

"With 10 years of hindsight, the ways in which our systems are failing us and taking away our power to create change as individuals are really apparent right now," says former Dwell editor Sarah Rich, reflecting on the staggering changes that have transformed the global food supply chain and the means by which our society accesses groceries in the last 10 years. Since first exploring these issues in Dwell's 10th anniversary issue, things have only gotten more complicated, Rich says.  

Some of the predictions she heard from experts back then feel shockingly prescient; among them, the anticipation of consumers’ preoccupation with food and packaging waste, an ever-shrinking tolerance for opaque marketing, and a certainty that the "internet-enabled supercomputers" in our pockets would change how we interact with food and information about it. 

"Stories about COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants and photos of farmers harvesting crops with wildfires behind them brings an immediacy to the consumer. That can shape the potential to change their behavior, or to at least be more conscious in their shopping practices," says Rich. 

Other predictions, like a desire to be more directly connected to where food is sourced, have taken on new meaning amid the pandemic and its disruption of every level of the supply chain. After all, this year saw a run on produce seeds for pandemic victory gardens, and a historic rise in community-supported agriculture (CSAs) after years of declining sales.  

The pandemic has also spurred the growth of meal kits and grocery delivery services, which became a lucrative intersection between the tech and food industries over the past decade. "We always expected this kind of demand to come in, but we thought it would be spread out over the next five years," says Evan Lutz, the CEO and founder of produce delivery service Hungry Harvest.

The company, which was founded in 2014, focuses on creating a market for the excess of irregular or blemished produce that farms can’t sell to grocery stores and may leave to rot or simply dispose of. Restaurants and food banks have long worked with farms in a similar capacity, but Hungry Harvest and its competitors reflect consumers’ growing interest in engaging with and shaping the food supply chain. "In the past six years we've seen food waste and ugly produce morph into a mainstream conversation as people have become aware of how much [food] waste they have in their own homes," says Lutz.

Hungry Harvest sources fruit and vegetables that don't meet grocery stores' strict aesthetic standards for size, uniformity, and minor blemishes.

Of course, any conversation about the luxury of choice and ease of access to fresh, nutritious food must be rooted in an understanding of the fact that millions of Americans routinely go hungry—a problem catastrophically worsened by the effects of the pandemic.  

In 2016, Hungry Harvest began supplying community-operated produce markets through its "Produce in a SNAP" initiative. Though they closed in March because of COVID-19, Lutz reports that they served between 20,000 and 25,000 people around Baltimore City, Maryland, during their four-year run. The markets sold produce at- or near-cost in food-insecure neighborhoods and accepted SNAP benefits among other payment methods. By comparison, the company’s emergency food box program, which sold subsidized boxes of produce to neighborhood nonprofits to distribute for free, served 30,000 in the five months following when the markets shut down.

These numbers offer a glance at a worsening, systemic problem perpetuated by an ineffectual response to food insecurity at the federal and state levels. Community organizers have since taken matters into their own hands at the grassroots level by opening and operating community fridges to help those reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Ernst Bertone Oehninger is a university lecturer in agricultural and resource economics and the founder of Freedge: A global platform for community-run fridges that makes free food items available to people impacted by food insecurity. Bertone Oehninger started his first community fridge in 2014, before bringing Freedge online in 2016. Though it's been around for a few years, the Freedge network has grown exponentially in the past five months. "Before February there were 17 community fridges [on Freedge] in the U.S. Counting from February until [early August], we have almost 100," he says.

A map shows community fridges registered on Freedge before February of 2020. "There were 17 fridges installed in the U.S. before the wave started by [activist group] In Our Hearts NYC (@iohnyc)," says Bertone Oehninger, crediting the group for both raising awareness of the community fridge movement and installing them throughout New York City.

As of August 2020, nearly 100 community fridges are registered on Freedge in the United States alone. "The image doesn't show the high density of fridges in big cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Oakland," says Bertone Oehninger. "I estimate that there are 20 to 30 more not shown on the map."

Freedge provides a directory of global community fridges, as well as resources for fridge hosts interested in installing and operating community fridges with guidance on zoning, liability, and micro-grants to offset operating costs.

 Bertone Oehninger emphasizes that Freedge, for the immediate relief it may provide, does not solve the systemic inequalities that perpetuate food insecurity. "The community fridges that are popping up, they definitely save food waste and provide for food-insecure folks, but I think the best thing about them is the bigger conversations they’re starting," he says.

The inefficiencies of the agriculture supply chain, which underpin both food waste and climate change, are a worthy topic of conversation. "Historically, digital tools and technology have been applied to singular points along this complex supply chain," explains Jennifer Betka, the chief marketing officer at agriculture technology company Indigo. "We think we need to look at how we can apply advancements to that entire system."

Indigo scientists collect plants from a wheat field to identify microbes living within them. The scientists' goal is to understand how microbes impact the plants' nutrient use efficiency.  

Indigo aims to modernize the supply chain by rethinking agronomy practices from the ground up. "Our focus is on improving consumer health, farmer profitability, and environmental sustainability through the use of microbiology and digital technology," says Betka.

The company, which was founded in 2014 as Symbiota before being renamed in 2016, is well on its way to meeting its goals of de-commodifying crops, combating climate change through regenerative farming, optimizing crop yields through microbial seed treatments, and streamlining crop transportation with an emphasis on traceability.

On their own, any one of those goals is a feat, but Indigo has its sights set on getting onto consumers’ radars as well. "The products that you and I purchase could have characteristics that demonstrate that they were developed and brought to market in a climate-positive way," says Betka of Indigo's potential to reach and impact the end-consumer. 

Consumers wield remarkable power through their purchases—just look at how the eco-conscious have pushed the organic movement well into the mainstream over the past decade. "Ten years ago there was kind of a sense of hopefulness about our own individual power to make changes as consumers and I think that's why so many of the examples in that story are consumer focused," says Rich of this article’s predecessor. "There was this idea that you can change the way you shop or eat or store food, and as a result, contribute to a shift in the system. I think there was some truth in that perspective."

Over the past year, the pandemic and natural disasters like California’s wildfire season have brought unprecedented consumer attention to the struggles of farmworkers and processing plant employees. "Prior to [the pandemic] I would say quite a small percentage of the population had a working knowledge of the conditions in which their food was being harvested," says LeAnne Ruzzamenti, marketing communications director for the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI).  

In addition to food safety and working conditions for farmworkers, EFI certification sets standards for workplace development; the EFI leadership teams are a hallmark of the certification and ensure that the team is representative of the workforce. EFI facilitators train the team members in problem solving, conflict resolution, and communications skills.

EFI was formed as an Oxfam initiative in 2008, but has operated independently since 2015. The organization operates the only consumer-facing produce certification program that sets rigorous standards for the working conditions and workplace safety protocol for farmworkers, in addition to regulating the use of pesticides and food safety practices. "Third party certification is telling you that extra care has been taken in the supply chain," says Ruzzamenti, who hopes consumers’ interest in empowering farmworkers continues to grow.

"There are so many categories of fresh produce where the last hands that touch that product, prior to you feeding it to your family, are the farmworkers’ hands; whether that's twist-tied lettuce or banded green onions," she says.

"Farmworkers have often felt like the silenced, ignored workforce in this country," explains Ruzzamenti. "And yet, when our food supply came into question, the reaction was that they're essential and they need to keep working to keep the food supply going strong.  I think there is great potential for the consumer to build on that recognition and educate themselves."

"Those are the hands that are responsible for your food. Do you want to know that those hands are of a person who has been treated well and safe, got paid fairly and looked after the safety of your food," she asks. "Or, do you want to be left wondering?" 

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