by Carol Hays, The Strategic Collaboration Group, LLC
As we all are acutely aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the frayed fabric of our nation’s food system. Since the outbreak, news of system breakdown seems to be everywhere we look. Over-reliance on repeated monocropping of largely non-food crops is leaving farmers financially underwater while small independent farms barely break even. Breaking fragile supply chains that once spanned the globe with just-in-time grocery shelf deliveries is leaving sparsely supplied shelves. Reliance on the work of underpaid and unprotected people who plant, harvest, process and serve our food is putting them at great risk of both health and economic harm. And most food service workers who make up over a quarter of the U.S. workforce have moved from tipped wages—stagnant at a minimum $2.15/hr since the 1930’s—to a higher standard of living on unemployment. Our food system is in many ways affected by and contributing to the pandemic’s collateral damage more so than perhaps any other sector.
But there is also another story to be told, one of imaginative, creative response and resilience in the face of a crippling gut punch to our systems. In tiny Ashkum, Illinois, nestled alongside I-57 N just an hour south of Chicago, Janie’s Mill has been humming along at breakneck pace since the March shutdown. Orders for owner Harold Wilken’s fresh stone-milled flours skyrocketed overnight as people rediscovered comfort in home baking and suddenly couldn’t find baking flour on emptied grocery store shelves. In no time, Janie’s Mill grew from a team of 4-5 folks milling and filling mostly wholesale orders for Chicago bakeries, to a team of over 20 working three shifts a day to fill the 800% increase in direct-to-consumer orders that exploded on the new online ordering platform. Harold, his family, and the Janie’s Mill team made this extraordinary pivot adeptly and with thrilling exuberance in a truly “all hands on deck” moment. Not only did the little Mill create jobs for young people of Ashkum, who suddenly found themselves home from college and without work, but they trained a new miller and most importantly introduced themselves to a new audience trying home baking for the first time. The Mill team has nurtured them along through social media and in the process cultivated a new generation of home bakers. Harold is living his dream of feeding people nutritious foods while also supporting his community.
Harold’s isn’t the only story of local food systems pivoting and finding success born of the pandemic. Many farmers across our area who raise fresh meats, produce, and eggs have also seen dramatic increases in demand for their products. As consumers discover the frailty of the food system most have come to take for granted, growing numbers are looking for locally raised options and asking how they can support local farmers and their local economy as favorite eateries are shuttered. In response to the crisis, there has also been a renaissance in-home and community gardening and food preservation as concerns have grown over accessible and affordable future food supplies. It would seem that in the midst of this crisis, local food systems are having a moment. With limited capacity, how can they rise to meet it and sustain their response?
The pandemic has shown us many lessons, but perhaps the most important is that we should consider our food system much like we do our utilities—an essential, common resource that we must be able to depend upon and that in many ways is an indicator of the resilience of our communities in a time of increasing stressors–be they from pandemics or the impacts of climate change. Local food systems that supply fresh, nutritious foods—especially to food insecure communities–should be nurtured, receive intentional investments, and not be left to the whims of the commodity marketplace and the supply chains of giant food corporations. Regional infrastructure needed to process, store, package and distribute fresh food to communities in each state is vital to national and local food security as is land for food production. Many communities are establishing or reinvigorating community food system councils to help focus attention on the strengths and gaps in their local food system, making recommendations for where investments are needed, not just in infrastructure but also land access for young farmers who are committed to building socially conscious, vibrant, diverse food farming enterprises in return for training, mentorship and resources. Adopting policies of sourcing increasing amounts of food locally, community anchor institutions–hospitals, universities, schools and other public institutions–can be key local food system investors along with local community resilience investment funds that we could all invest in.
The pandemic has shown us just how quickly we can pivot, adapt and create in real-time. The question we now must ask ourselves is: “Can we imagine a future in which more people choose locally grown food options and come to see their food choices as a path to both better health and a stronger, more resilient and secure community for all?” Let’s not let our failure be one of imagination.