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Farm To Table: The Coronavirus And America's Food Supply Chain

Donated supplies wait for distribution at the Capital Area Food Bank on April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Donated supplies wait for distribution at the Capital Area Food Bank on April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. (ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Could the coronavirus pandemic disrupt the food supply chain? We look at how food gets to your store and where the supply line is vulnerable.


Jackie Hendry, health care reporter at South Dakota Public Broadcasting. (@JackieHendrySD)

Michael Pollan, writer and journalist. Author of several books about food, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” (@michaelpollan)

Bob LaBonne Jr., president and CEO of LaBonne’s Market. (@LaBonnes)

Find the research letter “Food flows between counties in the United States” here.

Audio Highlights

What do listeners (and a professor) have to say about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the U.S. food supply chain?

On Point spoke with Megan Konar, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois. She studies food and water supply, and has mapped the flow of food across the country. You can find Megan’s map above, and her research letter here.

Professor Megan Konar has a proposal for the way the U.S. food system can coordinate resources before the next shock to the food supply chain occurs.

Listener Mida is an urban farmer in Buffalo, New York. She says she is “definitely seeing a peaked interest among residents … to find more local produce.”

Mark from the Hingham Farmers Market in Massachusetts says it’s important to support local farms. “We must do all we can to protect and promote them,” he says.

Jeff is a truck driver. He left us a voicemail from the road, and shared that truck drivers are vulnerable during the coronavirus outbreak. “Most truck drivers cannot find masks or anything,” he says.

Annie works at a grocery store chain in Michigan. She says the store has hired a lot of extra people “to sanitize everything, keep everything safe and clean.” But she still says customers are coming into the store and discarding their waste.

Annie, the grocery store worker in Michigan, also says there is a high demand for essential items at the grocery store. Which can lead to some problems. “One thing we definitely see is WIC stamp items being taken or bought by people who don’t necessarily need them,” she says.

William from Barneveld, Wisconsin left us a voicemail saying that he hasn’t been to a grocery store for nearly four months. He’s mainly relying on his freezer and cupboards, and picking up some things, like dairy products, directly from local farms.

Sydney Wertheim built out these audio highlights for the web.

From The Reading List

South Dakota Public Broadcasting: “Smithfield Plant to Close Indefinitely After COVID-19 Outbreak“– “Smithfield Foods is closing its Sioux Falls meatpacking plant indefinitely after hundreds of its employees contracted COVID-19. Over the weekend, Governor Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked the company to close the plant for at least two weeks.”

Foreign Policy: “How to Stop a Looming Food Crisis” — “The coronavirus has focused the world’s attention on the woeful lack of ventilators, respiratory masks, and intensive care unit beds available in many countries. Far less attention has been paid to another pandemic-driven shortage lurking over the horizon: food.”

New York Times: “U.S. Food Supply Chain Is Strained as Virus Spreads” — “The nation’s food supply chain is showing signs of strain, as increasing numbers of workers are falling ill with the coronavirus in meat processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores.”

The American Prospect: “Coronavirus Has Broken America’s Food Supply” — “The coronavirus crisis has exposed some serious frailty in America’s supply chains. To this point, those deficiencies have been most glaring when it comes to medical supplies. The country remains unable to produce or otherwise procure a satisfactory quantity of N95 masks, testing swabs, and ventilators. Toilet paper, too, is famously in short supply.”

NPR: “A Pound Of Flour To Go? Restaurants Are Selling Groceries Now” — “Thai food and toilet paper. Fish and chips and flour. A bistro box … of local produce.”

Washington Post: “The industry says we have enough food. Here’s why some store shelves are empty anyway.” — “Tempers are getting short. Supplies of ground beef even shorter. People are looking into each other’s shopping carts. Is that guy really going to use all four cans of chickpeas? That’s a lot of emergency hummus.”

Axios: “Stresses on food supply chains are causing empty supermarket shelves” — “While industry giants reassure shoppers there is enough food during the coronavirus pandemic, people continue to be met with empty supermarket shelves due to stresses on established supply chains, the Washington Post reports.”

Reuters: “‘Elbow to elbow:’ North America meat plant workers fall ill, walk off jobs” — “At a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Alabama, workers recently had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, according to a meat inspector.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.