What is Going on With Our Food System? (Draft)

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Introduction

Over the course of the past four weeks, primary and secondary research was performed on the topic of food waste and food security to understand the relationship between the two issues and their current problem scope. Interviews with eleven subject matter experts in the fields of agriculture, food manufacturing, urban farming, and food assistance were conducted along with a survey analysis of changes in consumption patterns. Common pain points were extracted and then analyzed for connections to uncover root causes. The information below is organized to illustrate a current understanding on the issues that plague our current food systems. The information is broken up into categories based on the advice of Brian Snyder, executive director of InFACT a “transdisciplinary program at The Ohio State University aimed at designing and implementing food systems that are sustainable” (1). InFACT addresses food systems through the lens of three categories: Availability, Utilization, and Access. With the advice of Mr. Snyder, the fourth category of Regeneration is also explored.

Availability

In this context, Availability is situated at the front-end of the food production process. Specifically, it involves the examination of pain points associated with bringing food into existence.

Lack of Biodiversity

In an interview with Brian Snyder, it is apparent that Ohioan agriculture is lacking in biodiversity. Currently, Ohio’s agriculture consists mainly of corn and soybeans and this has consequences throughout the whole food system. First, this has a negative effect on food security because a lack of diversity and dependence on “key crops” (7), can leave people exposed to harvest failure; especially when climate change causes the need for adaptable varieties that can cope with environmental changes. Second, Mr. Snyder touches on the effect of these two crops on the type of diet that results. Corn and soy both require a lot of processing. If these are the two main categories of food grown in Ohio, then the diet outcome is one full of processed foods— a category of food that creates risk for chronic conditions such as stroke, heart disease, and diabetes (8). Lastly, Mr. Snyder mentions that Ohio is growing crops that are mainly exported out of Ohio. This leaves us having to import our food putting us in a vulnerable externally reliant position. However, despite all of these negative consequences of a lack of biodiversity, according to an interview with Nick Fowler, the Buckeye Food Alliance Coordinator, many farmers do not partake in diverse farming because it is not profitable for them.

Space

Economic Policies

Access

Access in this context is defined as the ability for people to obtain the food after it is brought into existence. Essentially, what are the pain points in connecting consumers to food?

Inflexibility

At the height of the pandemic, news reports showed animals in the midwest meat industry being unnecessarily euthanized due to a slowdown of production lines (2). Reports also showed farmers in Ohio “dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits” (3) while in California, “rows of ripe iceberg, romaine and redleaf lettuce” (4) were left unharvested. The reasons for these occurrences stem from two main factors: a highly centralized meatpacking industry and the loss of main buyers for farmers with the close of restaurants, hotels, and schools both of which, led to an inflexible food system.

Meatpacking Industry

In the case of the euthanization of animals,  according to Adam Clark Estes with Vox Recode, this situation may have happened due to the reduced labor force as a result of the pandemic. With such a highly centralized system, when the labor force of meatpacking plants was disrupted, production lines slowed down causing a bottleneck in production, processing, and distribution. This bottleneck materialized in the form of a surplus of animals who were scheduled to be euthanized before the pandemic but now have nowhere to go.

This is illustrated further in a Vox interview: “‘If you hold them [the animals], they gain weight and you have to feed them, and that’s expensive,’ Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, told Recode. ‘And if they gain too much weight, then they’re going to be too big to be processed in these very standardized meat plants, like Smithfield…So you might try to hold them up’ and keep the animals waiting in a feedlot, Hendrickson added. ‘Or you’re going to kill them, euthanize them’” (2).

With meat processing capabilities in the United States down by about 40%, according to an interview between Vox and Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, “that amounts to 200,000 pigs that won’t get sent to slaughter, [in the pork industry alone] because the meatpacking plants that would process them are closed or otherwise unavailable” (2).

Dairy and Produce

The Dairy and Produce industries were mostly hit hard by the shutdown of schools, restaurants, and hotels. When shutdowns happened, these industries lost major buyers for their products. With a surplus of products, it was difficult for industries to quickly adapt. For example, “logistical obstacles” (3) prevented many dairy processors from quickly pivoting because machinery was designed for bulk packaging rather than retail-friendly packaging. In fact, “To repurpose those plants to put cheese in the 8 oz. bags that sell in grocery stores or bottle milk in gallon jugs would require millions of dollars in investment” (3). Additionally, while some surplus was donated to food banks, limited storage, volunteers, and transportation acted as a constraint on the amount charities could accept. As a result, many food products were wasted.

Both of these situations, highlight the rigidity of our current food system; once a disruption, in this case the pandemic, occurred, our current food system showed itself to be lacking in the ability to quickly adapt and be flexible. This can and will pose continue to pose issues in the future as different crises such as those related to climate change emerge.

Labor Conditions

At the core of the meatpacking industries breakdown, was the issue of labor. Meat Packing plants proved to be a fertile ground for the spread of the coronavirus. Workers encountered “back-breaking labor for low wages” (2) consisting of “prolonged closeness to other workers for long shifts of up to 12 hours, exposure to contaminated shared surfaces (such as workstations or break room tables) or objects (such as tools), and close contact during transportation to and from work, such as in ride-share vans, carpools, or public transportation.” (5)

Furthermore, in a Kaiser Family Foundation Analysis, it was found that the amount of Hispanic and noncitizen workers in the food sector was disproportionate to that of the total United States workforce. About 33% of all food production workers are Hispanic and 22% are noncitizens. This is compared to the overall U.S labor force where the numbers stand at 17% and 8% respectively. Additionally, food production workers in 2020 are likelier than all workers to have a household income that is 200% below the federal poverty line. This totals out to an income of $12,760 for an individual and $26,200 for a family of four. What’s more, Hispanic and Black food production workers are more likely to be uninsured than White food production workers. 31% of Hispanic food production workers and 16% of Black food production workers are uninsured compared to 9% of White food production workers (6). This all adds up to the glaring issue that food production workers, which hold a larger majority of the Hispanic and noncitizens workforce, are more at risk for negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially so, because this population of workers may face increased barriers to treatment due to lack of insurance and/or reluctance to seek medical care out of fear of “potential negative consequences on their or a family member’s immigration status” (6)

So, with difficult working conditions, multiple avenues for exposure, and inadequate safety nets, food production workers face extreme risks to their health as a result of the pandemic. Consequently, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a labor force that was more at risk for negative consequences, this greatly disrupted the American food system and led to the breakdown described previously. 

Physical Access

While there was an increase in food wasted as a result of the pandemic, there was also an increase in those seeking food assistance. According to an estimate by Feeding America a national food bank, “17.1 million Americans will have trouble feeding themselves and their families as a result of the pandemic” (4). This materializes in a variety of ways. 

Centralization and Profit

First, upon discussion with Mr. Snyder, it was evident that since we have a system that is designed with centralization and profit in mind, those who benefit (usually those in food processing and distribution), hold the power. Therefore, big grocery chains can decide where to build locations based on profitability. This leads to the existence of food deserts in lower-income areas because it is essentially not profitable to build there. In an interview with Paula Nabrit, the founder of the Charles Nabrit Memorial Garden an urban garden located in Columbus, Ohio, Ms. Nabrit explains how profit guides the intentions of large corporations. Despite being an “avid capitalist,” Ms. Nabrit laments the effect of this on the control of food, explaining that our society has, to our own detriment, put the fundamental issue of food in external hands. 

Global Supply Chains

Along these lines, the way that our food gets into our hands most of the time comes from across the country ending up at either super markets or food pantries. This is problematic because again, there is an external reliance on others as mentioned by Ms. Nabrit, but there is also the issue that longer supply chains are more likely to be disrupted and less resilient according to an interview with Mr. Snyder. Therefore, the way that we get our food is mainly dependent on a brittle external system. Additionally, when we have long transportation and distribution paths, the carbon footprint of the food that you eat becomes larger. This then leads to a larger negative environmental impact, especially if you purchase food from a grocery store and it goes to waste.

Diet Gap

Additionally, there is a lack of adequate access to fresh food. This materializes in the form of a dietary gap dependent on wealth: households with higher socioeconomic status tend to have more access to healthy food while those in lower socioeconomic status do not. Fresh produce is often limited to those who can afford it while cheaper, processed foods are available to lower-income households. This is problematic because it can contribute to higher chronic disease conditions in lower-income populations (9).

Stigma

Lastly, despite there being a rise in food assistance seekers, according to an interview with Nick Fowler, stigma in asking for assistance still exists. Additionally, awareness of help options still serves as a barrier to connecting users to food assistance programs.

Racial Inequality

According to the paper, Examining the Impact of Structural Racism on Food Insecurity: Implications for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities by Angela M. Odoms-Young, Ph.D., “food insecurity rates for both non-Hispanic black and Hispanic households were at least twice that of non-Hispanic white households” (10). This stems from this country’s long history with systemic racism and the implications of it that still stands today. Odoms-young categorizes racial discrimination into two categories: “ 1. ‘differential treatment on the basis of race that disadvantages a racial group’ (disparate treatment) and (2) ‘treatment on the basis of inadequately justified factors other than race that disadvantages a racial group’ (disparate impact)” (10). The first of the two materializes in the form of past overt racism found in structural systems and policies that still “limits people of color’s access to educational and employment opportunities resulting in social and economic consequences that could lead to food insecurity” today (10). For example, The National Housing Act of 1934 essentially “prevented Black Americans from receiving the federally backed loans guaranteed in the policy through a process known as ‘redlining’” (11). This restricted Black Americans from the best way of building wealth in America, through the purchase of a home; thus, along with other multi-faceted factors, affecting social and economic consequences today which contribute to food security. The second of the two also materializes in a way that impacts food insecurity. Odoms-Young explains that “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is five times that of whites. Consequently, policies that restrict employment for individuals who were previously incarcerated could disadvantage people of color, contributing to food insecurity ” (10). Thus seemingly unrelated factors at first glance, actually are connected in the way that People of Color living in America interact with our current food systems. 

Furthermore, Ms. Nabrit explains that the effects of slavery can still be seen emotionally in people of color today. She explains how she sees “Post Truamatic Slave Syndrome” materializing today in the form of unaddressed trauma specifically related to working in the field. She also highlights a study focused on DNA markers of stress found in descendants of Holocaust survivors and questions the same type of impact slavery may have had on Black Americans.

Overall, it is clear the implications of food insecurity and racial inequality are interwined. An adequate understanding of our current food system requires a consistent acknowledgement of this notion to ensure all perspectives around food security are addressed further along the design process.

Utilization

Utilization refers to the way customers interact with food once they acquire it. These include consumption patterns, relationships, and understanding of food.

Disconnect from Consumers

According to Mr. Snyder, Farmers tend to be frustrated because consumers lack sufficient knowledge about where their food comes from. Mr. Snyder advocates for education at the consumer level so customers have a better understanding of what their food is. Additionally, some advocates for ethically and sustainability raised meats feel as though many consumers do not care enough about participating in ethical consumption practices. With this they see that people are therefore, “voting with their forks” in favor of harmful industries.

Consumption patterns changing

With the pandemic, consumption patterns are changing as consumers adjust to a different type of lifestyle. Specific statistics can be found here, however, some notable trends are that consumers are purchasing more processed and long-lasting foods and less fresh produce. Additionally, consumers are spending less at hotels and restaurants and cooking more at home. Notably, consumers are also gaining more interest in growing their own food and Mr. Snyder projects this to last past the pandemic. Additionally, smaller and local niche farmers have actually seen a rise in sales during this time as consumers turn to more locally produced food when grocery stores run out or in an effort for more “COVID friendly food.”

Regeneration

Regeneration refers to how waste occurs and what we do with it. The following illustrates current issues regarding food waste.

Waste at the consumer level

Most consumer waste tends to happen at the household level and in an interview by Steve Curwood on living on earth, it is essentially said that waste at the household level could even be considered worse than waste at the production level because of the amount of carbon your food took to get in your hand. As explained previously, with our current system, there is a large carbon footprint associated with production, cross-country transportation, sitting on a shelf in grocery stores, etc. So, in the terminology from the interview, if you throw away a strawberry at home, you are not just throwing away that fruit, you are throwing away all of the carbon it took to get that strawberry in your hand. Therefore, one could say throwing away a strawberry in the field is less harmful than doing so at home. That is why many people advocate for the reduction of consumer household food waste. However, this situation illuminates a common theme throughout this research, the hindrances of a large centralized system. What if the answer to this situation isn’t just curbing food waste at the consumer level, but its looking at it so that the strawberry in your hands is just that, a strawberry, not the total carbon footprint.

Waste at the production level

As explained before, food waste during the pandemic was highly exacerbated at the production level. However, this problem was not a new phenomenon. In fact, a recent study has found that accurate farm loss measurements greatly exceeded previous estimates, 57% compared to 20% respectively. This shows that the problem of food waste at production levels is not new and is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, after speaking to Jess Campbell of Carroll Creek Farms, it became evident that assumptions regarding local farm food waste were inaccurate. She explained that local smaller farms do not actually experience this kind of loss because of the nature of their establishment. Since they are smaller, they often cannot afford such losses, therefore, any operational move is finely calibrated to avoid this. 

Key Takeaways

From this research, a main key takeaway are that many issues stem from the fact that our current food sector is characterized by centralized narrow profit-driven food systems that are held by few large companies. From this, a push towards the decentralization of our food system with a focus on localized production channels is seen. This approach would provide more flexibility, resiliency, and environmental stability than our current system. However, the benefit of our current system is that its efficiency gets some form of food on the table for most people in a cheap way. In an interview with employees from General Mills, it was evident that their top priority was to make sure people have access to food and that is an admirable one at most.

The reality is that the majority of people buy on price, so a globalized food system helps get affordable foods in the hands of a lot of people. Ms. Campbell pointed this out as well. She believes our food system cannot exist without global chains because their benefit is that food is available at a cheap price. However, we still have people reliant on food banks and assistance for meals. Additionally, these meals tend to be processed food which, as stated above, does not offer favorable health conditions for consumers. So moving forward, a focus on the balance between decentralization and cost is needed to innovate a new way of addressing food systems, food security, and food waste, that is equitable and healthy for all.

Ideal system: 

Lastly, a high-level overview of the various factors that should be addressed at the beginning of designing the ideal food system would be:

  1. Health
  2. Labor
  3. Space
  4. Cost
  5. Access
  6. Equity
  7. Sustainability (environment)
  8. Resiliency

Works Cited

  1. https://discovery.osu.edu/sites/default/files/links_files/InFACT_2019StratPlanSummary_03_020620.pdf. 
  2. https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/5/8/21248618/coronavirus-meat-shortage-food-supply-chain-grocery-stores
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/23/fixing-food-dumping-food-banks/?arc404=true
  5. https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767667
  6. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-covid-19-outbreak-and-food-production-workers-who-is-at-risk/?utm_campaign=KFF-2020-Health-Costs&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=2&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_L5KGxHdu9PcBauWo2naxnZ3FRvMHyZvG-T_8vDZAeIJ1GCRaCPTUHPkTQ2C2g4xtBa7GIpyBZxvDSkiwn_IIl7sLTsQ&utm_content=2&utm_source=hs_email
  7. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26382067#:~:text=The%20authors%20warned%20a%20loss,disease%20and%20diabetes%2C%20they%20added.
  8. https://www.fightchronicdisease.org/latest-news/hunger-poor-nutrition-lead-chronic-disease#:~:text=Processed%20foods%20are%20associated%20with,stroke%2C%20heart%20disease%20and%20diabetes
  9. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/access-to-real-food-as-privilege/379482/ 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5823283/ 
  11. https://moveforhunger.org/hunger-racial-equity-issue