What COVID-19 should teach us about food: Florida Agriculture Commissioner

COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in every link of the food supply chain.

COVID-19 has upended many facets of American life. We’ve seen stadiums, movie theatres, theme parks, schools and libraries empty practically overnight. We’ve learned the value of human closeness by having to forgo it.

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Yet one of the most acute and significant disruptions to our routine has been food.

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This pandemic is forcing a new consumer consciousness of how and where we grow, process and buy the food that feeds our families. COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in every link of the food supply chain. The good news is that we can take steps to fix it.

It starts with our farmers and ranchers. American agricultural producers are struggling with mounting losses from the closure of traditional foodservice businesses and large-volume buyers, such as restaurants, cruise lines and theme parks.

America’s pork producers have projected $5 billion in losses this year, while the nation’s dairy farmers may suffer losses of nearly $3 billion.

Here in Florida, our seasonal produce growers supply 150 million Americans with fresh vegetables from October to May, yet are facing $522 million in losses since March.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a $19 billion aid package to assist American farmers, including $3 billion in direct purchases of produce, meat and dairy. No doubt, this aid will be helpful to some. But for thousands of other farmers, the help will be too little, too late.

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Transporting hundreds of millions of pounds of crops from farms is also critical. The closure of traditional foodservice industries has disrupted how this food is distributed. With up to 500 semi-trucks of fresh vegetables leaving farms each day from Immokalee, Fla., alone, this disruption has caused a need for a swift rewiring of where food goes.

Grocery stores and food banks have absorbed much of what restaurants typically buy, but their storage capacity is limited. Here in Florida, we’ve worked to connect not only consumers with farms but farms with transportation companies that can haul away crops before they rot in fields.

Schools are one of the most vital foodservice channels closed by COVID-19, feeding millions of children through school lunch and breakfast programs.

For many children facing food insecurity, school meals are the only meals on which they can rely. With the dual risk of kids going hungry and food going to waste with schools closed, in Florida we used flexibility granted by the USDA to keep serving school meals with community partners throughout the pandemic.

The 2,500 locations we’ve approved not only supported our farmers by buying Florida-grown food but served 42 million meals to children through May.

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Retailers have had their food supply chain issues, too. To fend off hoarding in the pandemic’s early weeks, many retailers implemented consumer purchase limits – and many times, they weren’t needed.

In Florida, at least 10 million gallons of milk have been dumped, yet grocery stores continued limiting consumers to just a gallon or two of milk or a dozen eggs, so we worked with retailers like Publix, Walmart and Whole Foods to end these limits.

America’s grocers also have a responsibility to support America’s farmers. Too often, products in our local grocery stores come from far abroad, like blueberries from Peru or tilapia from Thailand.

This happens in part because the U.S. market is flooded by cheap, subsidized food from Mexico and elsewhere. That’s why I fought against President Trump’s USMCA trade agreement, which does nothing to stop the dumping of these crops below market value, further devastating our farmers.

It’s ultimately up to consumers to make the conscious choice to support our farmers. Consumers share a responsibility to shop as local as possible.

Ask for produce, seafood and meats from local farms. Check the labels on food for its country of origin, such as “Product of USA.” Look for locally-grown tags in grocery stores, like “Fresh From Florida.”

Consumers have the greatest power of all to protect our food supply chain: their dollars. Where you spend your money is a statement of who you support.

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We have long taken feeding our families for granted. But for American farms long dealing with foreign competition, rural mental health challenges and limited access to mainstays like health care and broadband internet, struggle has been a fact of life. It’s simply taken a global pandemic for the rest of us to catch up.

Given enough time, social distancing and other facets of life with COVID-19 will eventually fade away. But buying local food, supporting local farmers and ranchers and doing so as a matter of national pride and domestic health and safety, should become one of many new norms in America.

Nikki Fried, a Democrat, serves as Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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