Shortages in grocery stores have been so common since the COVID-19 pandemic started that they’ve become a punchline. Who can forget the store owners in a “Saturday Night Live” skit pleading, “We wanna give you what you want, but first, we need you to buy what we have!”
Why are some products in abundance on grocery store shelves while others are more difficult to find? It would be logical to assume that there are shortages because farmers aren’t producing enough of the things people want to buy. But it would also be wrong. Take meat, for example. There are widespread shortages, some stores are limiting purchases of what supplies they have, and even some burger joints have had to stop selling burgers. At the same time, ranchers and farmers I’ve talked with at places like Johnson Family Farms in McClellanville and Wishbone Heritage Farms in St. George say they have plenty of meat to sell.
The truth is, shortages don’t start on our farms. They start in our nation’s food supply chain and distribution system. And the pandemic has exposed serious weaknesses in the processes we rely on to get food from our farms to our tables.
The typical grocery store relies primarily on large-scale commodity agricultural production and distribution. The system depends on complicated processing and transport systems, with production focused on efficiency rather than nutrition or flavor. When those complex systems break down, the two ends of the chain (food producers and food consumers) get disconnected. We’re seeing that happen today with meat suppliers as massive processing facilities where coronavirus spreads like wildfire shut down. We can expect to see the same with fruit and vegetables in the weeks and months ahead as product overwhelms a processing and transportation infrastructure weakened by the pandemic.
Luckily, there is an alternative to the faltering national supply chain. Local, sustainable agriculture not only mitigates the risks of the types of impacts we see with disruptions in large-scale food systems. It also supports local businesses and generally better land management practices. Purchasing locally grown food supports our rural communities, farmers, and neighbors by keeping food dollars local. By purchasing from local farmers, you are helping to conserve rural lands, preserve agricultural traditions and most of all enjoy the flavors of a local harvest.
Those farms could prove to be the national food supply’s safety net, making today’s crisis less severe and helping avoid supply disruptions in the future by forming the core of a reimagined local food network that is focused on resilience, diversity and sustainability. Local produce has long had a reputation as a niche product for upscale “farm to table” restaurants and farmers markets. During this crisis, local food is now serving as a security measure. Local farmers are helping to keep grocery store shelves stocked and to help meet the hungry demand of low-income and food desert neighborhoods. For example, since April, we at GrowFood Carolina have been able to move 4,000 pounds of produce from local South Carolina farms directly to the Lowcountry Food Bank and other organizations feeding communities in need. And we’re on track to deliver another 10,000 pounds over the next few weeks.
The pandemic is teaching us all a painful lesson. The national food supply chain is tenuous, and the local farm safety net is vital. We should all be working to expand and strengthen it. It is clear that supporting local, sustainable food systems and farmers is a key to overcoming the crisis and is essential to building a resilient food supply and healthy future for everyone. Making that transition is up to all of us. Buy local to make our food system more secure to savor the delicious fresh seasonal peaches, blueberries,eggs and much more. Unlike those unfortunate grocers on SNL, local farmers have what you want to buy.
Anthony Mirisciotta is general manager of GrowFood Carolina, a Charleston-based food hub founded by the Coastal Conservation League to support local farmers.