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COVID-19 is Pushing our Food System to its Limits—Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series covering the impact of COVID-19 on the American food system and solutions recommended by local leaders.

Authors: Caitlin Morelli

“All of this feels like it’s uncovered why our food system is so broken. The worst thing we can do is see all this on the table in the middle of a crisis and go back to normal in six months.” — Mariela Cedeño

Mariela Cedeño is worried. As Interim Executive Director at Mandela Partners — a hyper-local food system that partners with residents, family farmers, and community businesses to distribute food and create wealth — she has seen COVID-19 wreak havoc on her community since the earliest days of the pandemic reaching U.S. shores.

Mandela Partners works with a network of local growers (mostly people of color) and in normal times, they distribute produce across the Bay Area to pop-up community stands and local retailers (small grocers, restaurants, caterers, and value-add producers). With 80% of their produce stands shut down on school sites, senior centers, and affordable housing complexes, they are rushing to maintain the same level of purchasing from their farmers and pivot into emergency response programs.

At the highest level, this pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of our food industry, or rather our ability to ensure the economic security of our food workers during a crisis. Despite this, Mandela Partners’ ability to shift their distribution points to continue serving low-income communities speaks to the kind of local ecosystem that is needed across the nation — one where farmers, service providers, food hubs, and nonprofits work together to channel food and capital where it’s most needed in times of crisis. Imagine our multinational food corporations trying to do this.

Cedeño further explains that low-income communities cannot afford (as middle to high-income communities can) to shift their buying practices to CSA pick-ups or grocery deliveries. With the proliferation of food deserts across the Bay Area, many of these communities rely on Mandela Partners. It is why emergency funding is so desperately needed for Mandela Partners, local food banks, and other partners who have pivoted towards community meal programs.

Local farmers brace for impact

In Northern California, small-scale farmers are feeling the immediate effects of COVID-19 because farmers markets are year-round, says Anthony Chang, Director of Kitchen Table Advisors. Rural farmers across the board are taking a hit, and it’s even more severe for farmers who are working class, refugees, or people of color.

Everyone profiled in this series has made one thing clear: farmers and food system workers are the most resilient folks in our communities—it is the speed at which they’re having to adapt that is unprecedented.

Farmers make critical planning decisions months in advance. Without immediate, short-term financial relief to address disrupted demand from coronavirus containment efforts, they risk revenue loss that is impossible to come back from.

Cedeño and Chang both speak to a major pain point. Small-scale farmers maintain many income streams to survive; they distribute wholesale, but they also serve restaurants, small grocery stores, farmers markets, and catering companies. For one income stream to fail would be burdensome but manageable. Multiple distribution points closing at once is a crisis. It is a failure of the system when we have plenty of local, organic food and no pathways to reach consumers.

Farmers in the southeast are just entering peak season, so we haven’t seen the impacts just yet,said Brennan Washington of Southern SARE (a U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and outreach program). In contrast to the Bay Area, key farmers markets are not yet open in Georgia where Washington is based. Small farms are concerned about direct-to-consumer sales should markets close as they have in Seattle. Some may be able to switch to online sales and CSAs, but not every farmer has that opportunity, especially in rural areas.

Morale is still fairly positive, but Washington cautions that things might change. With the U.S.-Mexico border closed to all nonessential travel, many farmers are considering the effect on operations that rely heavily on migrant labor, such as the approaching blueberry harvest in Georgia.

With multiple aid packages in the works, Washington is keeping an eye out. Large, conventional agriculture is often treated differently than small farms that lack crop insurance and access to financial assistance. Crop insurance is priced against large commodity-based farms, and funders have yet to develop crop insurance products for smaller farms with diversified income streams. This is one reason why small-scale farmers are bracing for impact, and why any aid for the agriculture industry must consider their needs.

Washington concluded, “Don’t forget that farmers in the southeast have been hit by disaster after disaster. Monetary aid may be what’s needed immediately, but we also must talk about resources for mental health. This is the moment to tell the story of small farmers and advocate for strengthening our local food systems.”

What would a resilient food economy look like?

Chang warns that we must not get lost in the emergency; that we cannot let this opportunity slip away and revert to business as usual.

Strengthening local systems means that in times of crisis, the independent, Latino-owned grocery store in Chang’s neighborhood can keep paying its workers and communicating in real-time with the community. It means encouraging buyers — big box grocery stores, corporate cafeterias, hospitals — to start prioritizing people and planet over profit by purchasing local products and paying living wages to eliminate the exploitation of food workers.

Chang questions whether capitalism and regenerative agriculture are even compatible, whether higher wages, better working conditions, and increased sales for small organic farms will cut it when we emerge at the end of this tunnel.

For truly just and resilient regional food economies, he adds, Latino farmworkers must have the opportunity to own sustainable small farm businesses and control land, regenerative farmers and ranchers must have the power and patient capital to collectively own critical aggregation, distribution and processing facilities, and black, indigenous, and people of color communities must exercise cultural and economic self-determination over land stewardship, seed-saving, and heritage food.

The solutions we need right now.

Jen Faigel of Commonwealth Kitchens has said that “Immediate grant funds are needed. Loans won’t do it.” As much as $50 billion in U.S. Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loans may be deployed over the coming months, but neither Chang or Cedeño expects much of this to reach the farmers, microbusinesses, nonprofits, and families they work with.

Connie Evans of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) explained why this is to NextCity: the paperwork requirements (for the SBA 7(a) loan-guarantee program) are often too burdensome for small businesses. The program also relies on mainstream financial institutions that don’t have an interest in providing small loans and do not have existing relationships with those who need them. Evans adds that funding should be made available to the SBA microloan program, which has a track record of serving low-income communities and borrowers of color.

In the absence of these loans — and even if they are made available — grant funding is what is immediately needed to meet this particular moment. Funders are being called on over and over to step up their grantmaking and let local leaders direct the funding.

What could come of this? Take Mandela Partners as an example. With an annual budget just shy of $2M, they serve 25–30 local farmers, 30 businesses in every cohort of their program, 26 staff and trainees, and thousands of people who buy their produce weekly.

While they’ve been able to cover 40% of the monthly income for this network, they’re now raising $97,000 to cover the other 60% for the next three months. This funding will not only provide supplemental wages and free meals for at-risk community members, but also help to get their vendors on apps, subsidize their utilities, and provide other sales support.

Cedeño adds: “This is the bare minimum we need to keep operational. Many of these businesses won’t last three weeks without supplemental support. We’re a small organization and our problems are just a microcosm of every local food system nationwide.”

Chang has articulated three types of funding that are immediately needed for food systems, in order of priority: 1) emergency capital to those directly impacted (ex. helping people put food on the table and pay rent), 2) capital for infrastructure that builds resilient food systems, and 3) investment in organizations on the ground and leaders from frontline communities who are poised to center justice and resilience through this food system transformation. When asked what these infrastructure investments might look like, Chang said,

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