Grace Oedel: Coronavirus exposes faults in our food system

Editor's note: This commentary is by Grace Oedel, the executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT).

As shoppers encounter empty shelves, the COVID-19 reveals a food system that is dangerously brittle. Now is the time to invest in a food system that is resilient and local, as both a short-term response, and a long-term plan. 

Here in Vermont, we already have many seeds for the future planted, ready to be watered and tended to, in order to nourish a resilient food future. We can’t rush back towards "business as usual." This is a unique opportunity to move towards a truly adaptable, durable, thriving food system.

This pandemic has exposed the economic precariousness of many small and mid-sized farmers, whose crucial, life-giving labor is vastly undervalued. Farmers and farmworkers, along with people working in food service, are often paid hourly, without reliable health coverage or paid sick leave. This crisis reveals that, for many children, school meals offer the sole source of a healthy meal in their day. Many of our seniors live in relative isolation, and are extremely vulnerable and food insecure. In short, the coronavirus exposes the fault lines in our current food system, and calls to us with a profound sense of urgency to get to work building a different one. To do this, we must shorten supply chains, support small and mid-sized farmers as the backbone of our food communities, and deepen relationships directly between farmers and eaters, so that all may be fed. 

In times of crisis, we can shrink or we can expand. 

First, we need to come together in the short term to mitigate the very real harm that will affect small and mid-scale farmers and food providers. Just yesterday afternoon, after originally understanding that farmers markets could continue to operate and fall into an "essential" category, the Vermont Farmers Market Association heard that in fact the governor’s office made a different determination and decided ultimately that markets may not take place (although they could transition to function as a pick-up site). We in the local food movement strongly oppose this decision, knowing that markets provide both a crucial food access point and a much needed market for direct market farms. 

If grocery stores are "essential," surely so are other locations for farmers to bring their produce to market. Our farmers have food available, and they need to sell that food to stay in business, both at markets and at farm stands. 

CSA shares offer yet another important direct-to-consumer model, strengthening local supply chains and making both food and income more secure for farmers and eaters — a win-win. CSAs are still allowed, according to the governor’s order. Many CSAs have already made system changes so that produce is bagged individually and members get food one at a time. If you’ve been debating the moment to commit to such a relationship, there’s never been a better time! Direct-to-you food services like Farmers to You that support local, organic farmers and food providers are another good option. Also, our state’s many food co-ops, along with independently owned natural food stores, buy directly from Vermont farmers and food providers. 

Diversity and relationships strengthen resilience. We need all the local food access points as possible. We cannot abandon farmers who rely on direct sales and expect that they’ll be able to survive to the other side of this crisis. On the contrary, this moment should call upon us with renewed clarity to make choices that support these critical food providers year-round.

Long term, we need to take this crisis as a moment to evaluate, learn, and commit to investing in a food system that is local, relational, and strong. 

As the wise agricultural activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva said, “The uncertainty of our time is no reason to be certain about hopelessness.” Let us take this moment to affirm our collective path and move boldly towards the food system, and future, we so need.


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