COVID-19’s Impact on Our Food System by Jessee Steele

COVID-19 has exposed fundamental flaws in our food system. Mathematical modelers from Bloomberg News predict that world hunger may double as a result of food shortages caused by the pandemic[1]. To help understand how coronavirus has and continues to affect our food system, we can reference the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilization, and stability[2]. The organization defines food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life[3].” Our current system is not impervious to pandemic, and as explored below, those with less resources are most impacted by a failed system. We therefore should expand SNAP infrastructure to improve the following factors of food resiliency that COVID-19 has impacted:

  • Availability: Is there any food?

With countries locking down and imposing trade restrictions, food supply chains have been disrupted, reducing the amount of imports countries can receive. These transport regulations may also have impacts on future agricultural seasons because of limited seed availability[4].

  • Access: Can I get food?

Panic buying has left many grocery stores with slim pickings, despite many purchased fresh products never being eaten[5]. This is especially true in pre-existing food deserts[6]. Because restaurants and schools are largely closed, milk and other produce have nowhere to go before they spoil: grocery stores will not buy it, and there’s no infrastructure in place to donate it to food pantries or community centers[7]. Furthermore, some processing plants and farms run through migrant workers have even needed to shut down because of the disease[8].

  • Utilization: How is food being eaten?

Due to limited access of fresh produce, more consumers are relying on canned goods with less nutritional benefits[9]. Because sales have gone up on foods with high sugar, salt, and fat content, there is possibility that rates of obesity and malnutrition may increase[10].

  • Stability: How certain am I that I can get food if something goes wrong?

The vast majority of Americans get their food from chain grocery stores, even in agricultural areas[11]. In circumstances where grocery stores may fail to supply what is needed (e.g., during a pandemic), many people do not have reliable alternative they can turn to (such as home-growing or farmer’s markets).

This framework helps organize the information we have about COVID-19’s impact, making it easier to develop policy-based solutions.

CLIMATED Model of Food System Resiliency

An acronym designed by food system researcher, James Worstell, CLIMATED describes standards and the organizational structures of resilient systems. Specifically, food systems need to be modular enough to not all fail when one part goes down but interconnected enough to support each other and be efficient. Further, a system needs a diverse array of types of food generation: urban growing, large-scale farming, home gardening, community gardening—the list goes on[12]. Graphs at the end help visualize the importance of CLIMATED.[13]

Applying CLIMATED to SNAP Reform

Our current system is not stable because most people have no alternatives to emptying grocery stores. Further, our system is incredibly interconnected to be more efficient and produce excess, leading to larger failures when one subsystem cannot work[14]. Low-income families are significantly more affected by food security, so a policy response should center their experiences[15].

SNAP attempts to do just this: it provides subsidies for certain food products to low-income families. However, though SNAP has proven to be effective in reducing food insecurity, subsidized items tend to lack nutrition and can only be found in grocery stores[16]. When grocery stores close or run out, then, SNAP recipients have less capacity to partake in a flexible food system that includes more farmers markets or urban gardens.

I recommend expanding SNAP funding to subsidize purchases from farmer’s markets to strengthen political infrastructure supporting diverse types of food production. This has actually been test-piloted in multiple states, like Washington and Colorado, where locally grown food has seen a boom in lower-income consumers[17]. Specifically, SNAP would pay for half of everything bought at farmer’s markets for SNAP-enrolled people. This additional program could feasibly be translated to other states, too, as states have already begun making SNAP eligibility requirements more flexible since the pandemic hit[18].


[1] De Sousa, A. Tracking COVID-19. Bloomberg News. 2020.

[2] “Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security.” 2009. United Nations.

[3] “Policy Brief: Food Security.” 2006. United Nations.

[4] Zurayk, Rami. 2020. “Pandemic and Food Security: A View from the Global South” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 9 (3): 17–21.

[5] Bouchelle, Sydney. 2020. “Panic Buying Leaves Empty Shelves at Local Grocery Store.” WWAY TV (blog). March 15, 2020.

[6] News, A. B. C. Apr. 26, 2020. “More than a Disease, COVID-19 Exposes Health Risk of Food Insecurity: OPINION.” ABC News. Accessed May 29, 2020.

[7] “These 5 Foods Show How Coronavirus Has Disrupted Supply Chains.” 2020. Science. May 19, 2020.

[8] “Meat Processing Plants across the US Are Closing Due to the Pandemic. Will Consumers Feel the Impact? – CNN.” Apr 27, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.

[9] Same as 4.

[10] “Our Diets Are Changing Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Is It for the Better?” n.d. Time. Accessed May 31, 2020.

[11] “The Food Deserts of Rural America.” n.d. Planetizen – Urban Planning News, Jobs, and Education. Accessed May 31, 2020.

[12] Worstell, James. 2020. “Ecological Resilience of Food Systems in Response to the COVID-19 Crisis.” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 9 (3): 23–30.

[13] Tendall, D. M., J. Joerin, B. Kopainsky, P. Edwards, A. Shreck, Q. B. Le, P. Kruetli, M. Grant, and J. Six. 2015. “Food System Resilience: Defining the Concept.” Global Food Security 6 (October): 17–23.

[14] Same as 4.

[15] Ratcliffe, Caroline, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Sisi Zhang. 2011. “How Much Does the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Reduce Food Insecurity?” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 93 (4): 1082–98.

[16] “How America’s Wealth Gap Shows Up On Our Dinner Plates.” n.d. NPR.Org. Accessed June 1, 2020.

[17] Biehl, Erin, Sarah Buzogany, Alice Huang, Gwen Chodur, and Roni Neff. n.d. “Baltimore Food System Resilience Advisory Report,” 169.

[18] “Most States Are Using New Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges.” 2020. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. March 31, 2020.


3 thoughts on “COVID-19’s Impact on Our Food System by Jessee Steele

  1. I really liked how you organized this! It was very easy to read visually and this made the content easier to understand. I’m really glad that you mentioned the meat plants being shut down – the processing plant “Smithfield” was trying to mitigate the spread of COVID among the workers and was running really low on people when Trump demanded that they stay open. Quite a powerful pro-meat stance!

    There is so much ground to cover on this topic I just want to add a couple tidbits:
    Lots of schools have been doing drive-by school lunches. At my high school of around 1400, about 800 kids are showing up every day to get their free lunches. But at the same time, the schools are losing the funds to pay certain workers so my high school is laying off a bunch of cafeteria workers. Food security doesn’t seem to really be a priority.

    However, social media has raised a lot of awareness about food stamps. When stores were still undergoing massive hoarding, families with food stamps weren’t able to participate until the first couple days of the month when their stamps became usable. Lots of instagram activists were advocating for people not on food stamps to avoid going to stores during these days so people using food stamps could adequately stock up.

    Finally, people in my neighborhood have been flocking to farmers markets in the past couple of months to get their produce. Compared to a post-apocalyptic-looking grocery store, friendly farmers and smiles at neighbors is much more appealing. However, obviously these farmers markets are not a universal commodity. They tend to be in richer, whiter towns, and sometimes the produce is more expensive than store bought. Now, however, farmers are trying to get rid of all of their excess produce that restaurants are no longer purchasing their goods. One stand was offering 8 pounds of strawberries for just $5! But you have to buy the entire package in bulk! Obviously this is a COVID-specific reaction, so I think in general it would be a great idea to get SNAP out of grocery stores and into other food avenues.

  2. This was a really interesting blog! For the past four months we’ve heard so much about how COVID-19 has impacted so many aspects of the world and especially so much about its impact on food security and agricultural output. This blog put all the information together in a really clear way! For me the biggest takeaway of all of this information is how fragile our food system is. Immediately when the pandemic hit, basic food necessities began flying off the shelves, but at the same time we saw a huge surplus of perishable foods like fresh produce and milk. A few pictures and videos went around social media of dairy farmers pouring out gallons of excess milk and huge piles of produce like rotting potatoes sitting in a field because the farmer could not sell them to grocery stores. It seems insane that all of this food goes to waste if grocery stores cannot buy them while food insecurity is at an all time high during this pandemic. While food banks are seeing record numbers of people frequenting them, excess fresh foods are being thrown away because they can’t be sold for profits. I think this exposes a major policy flaw and the government needs to be purchasing these excess products from farmers and redistributing them to food banks, especially focused in “food deserts”. Not only would this reallocate food to the people who need it the most at this time, but it would allow farmers to be making at least some money on the excess food they have at this time, rather than allowing it to go to waste.

  3. I love this topic! Do you know if any of the food producers are looking to ease this problem themselves? I remember seeing something about a giant pile of potatoes somewhere that people were able to pull potatoes from for free. I don’t think the producer’s actual intention was to provide free potatoes, rather, they were simply placing excess in an area. It does make me wonder if any of them have taken it upon themselves to distribute some of their excesses in a creative way. I also think it’s wild that none of these logistical issues were ever even given serious thought in the design of our food system. I do love the idea of expanding SNAP! The issue of farmer’s markets often being quite a bit more expensive than the grocery stores is a huge barrier, though. The availability of homegrown or locally grown food and related community programs should definitely be addressed in a complementary fashion.

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