On a recent trip to the Safeway in Midtown Sacramento, I bought cereal, eggs and salsa. I really needed toilet paper, eggs and rice. But those shelves were bare, except for two bags of black rice.
Yet the store didn’t seem like it was going to run out of food anytime soon. This experience inspired me to talk to experts, farmers and the people who harvest our produce about whether this pandemic is threatening our food supply.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in some growers' plans, especially those that rely on restaurants, schools and businesses that are closed. Farmworkers are worried about getting sick and some growers are concerned about how to harvest crops with social-distancing in mind. Both are worried about restricted borders.
Stores are figuring out how to keep essentials on the shelves at all hours of the day. Meanwhile, Californians are forced to wait days before toilet paper, potatoes or even kitty litter are back on store shelves. They have questions about what this all means as the state tries to flatten the virus’s curve.
Will There Be Enough Food On The Shelves?
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Yes, there will be. That’s in large part because there are enough stores of staple items globally to prevent shortages, according to the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute.
The group notes that even in China, food supplies have remained adequate, with some stress on poultry and pork supply chains. The one area where the chain is seeing some disruptions is transporting food to stores.
All the tension in agriculture at the moment doesn’t mean stores are going to run out of food. That’s the message Ron Fong, with the California Grocers Association, wants shoppers to understand.
“You don't need to over buy; it’s important to know that our supply chain is safe and plentiful,” said Fong.
But that doesn’t mean staples like toilet paper, rice or eggs will always be on the shelves. He says that’s because stores are mostly set up for people to buy a week’s worth of food and people are overstocking their pantries.
Hoarding, he says, is putting pressure on getting food from warehouses to stores.
“Since consumers are overbuying, we're needing to stock the stores literally three times a day instead of once,” said Fong. “We can't get trucks into our stores three times per day.”
So if store shelves are empty, he says it isn’t a supply issue, it’s a change in demand and consumers may have to wait a day or two before buying products like toilet paper or eggs.
“Agriculture is resilient to shocks,” said Dan Sumner, an agricultural economist with UC Davis. “Consumers can be confident that the food is safe and plentiful. That doesn't mean every product is gonna be there all the time.”
But as the pandemic lingers some products could be harder to find if they’re from a part of the world hard hit by COVID-19, says Sumner. As demand is down for certain goods, he says it could mean “somewhat lower prices. But I expect it will be relatively modest for food. What I mean by that is we're going to continue to eat.”
Small Farms Hit The Hardest
Many big farms are thriving despite the new rules, but that’s not the case for some smaller operations.
“For our smaller farmers who depend on those direct sales, this is an uneasy time,” said Jamie Johansson, executive director of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We have been successfully working with the Department of Food and Agriculture in getting farmers markets designated as an essential business.”
Dragon Gourmet Mushrooms in Sacramento County relies on farmers markets, restaurants and bulk orders. Kathy Kokkos helps run the farm booth at markets and says she’s thankful they can still sell at places like the Midtown Farmers Market in Sacramento.
“Our farm has been affected because a lot of restaurants have closed,” said Kokkos. “That’s a huge part of our market.”
The farm is taking precautions like pre-bagging mushrooms, offering hand sanitizer to customers and using gloves. But not all farmers markets are open across the state and Ben Feldman, with the Farmers Market Coalition, says this is challenging growers to get creative.
“For the markets that are open … we’ve seen a bump in sales as people prepare for quarantine,” said Feldman. “But for folks feeling the impact, they've had to change the way to do business.”
Since it’s early spring many farmers aren’t harvesting yet and are hoping this blows over by the time they need to pick.
Nikiko Masumoto, a fourth generation organic peach farmer near Fresno, says the family operation relies on people visiting the farm to pick peaches and nectarines through its ‘Adopt-A-Tree’ program. In response, Masumoto says they’re exploring the idea of home delivery.
“If social distancing is still a necessary part of our public health life, then we are going to have to change major things about how we get the food we grow to people,” said Masumoto.
At the moment it’s fairly simple for workers to follow social distance rules, said Rachael Long, a farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension. That’s in part because of mechanization.
“You’ve got a ton of equipment, so it’s not like there's a ton of people out there working together on growing the crops,” said Long. “You've got tractors and cultivators that are doing a lot of this work right now.”
Farmworkers Wary Of COVID-19
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Even though experts say the state’s food supply is secure, some farmers are concerned, especially if the pandemic continues into harvest time.
Joe Del Bosque grows vegetables and melons in Fresno County. He’s worried about restricted borders and sick farmworkers.
“Right now, we're OK,” said Del Bosque. “The asparagus is picked with local people. During the summer, we will hire about 300 people, possibly 25 percent come from Mexico.”
With tighter borders and consulates in Mexico suspending immigrant and non-immigrant visas until further notice, Del Bosque wonders if there will be enough workers when crops across California are harvested this summer.
But it’s not just farmers who are struggling to grasp the impacts of COVID-19. Farmworkers, like Kern County mandarin picker Salvador Calzadillas, have major questions about whether it’s safe to go to work. Every work day he and about half a dozen others drive together to the groves.
“I’m worried about what happens if one of my coworkers gets infected,” said Calzadillas. “We still have morning meetings every day and we aren’t required to practice social distancing.”
The 31-year-old says if he gets sick he only has two weeks worth of funds for his family. He’s one of many in this situation, says Armando Elenes with the group United Farm Workers.
“Some of them are relieved that they can go to work, but many others are very frustrated,” said Elenes, “because they start questioning, ‘Well, you know, what about my family?’”
He says for some workers there’s this feeling of resentment over now being considered essential workers.
“It's been very difficult, they have no safety net,” said Elenes. “They don't qualify for a lot of different benefits. So, they really only have one choice and that's either go to work or not earn any money.”
With some growers complying and so much news around COVID-19, Elenes says farmworkers don’t always know what to believe. That’s caused issues for growers like Paul Underhill, who farms vegetables in Yolo County. He says employees tell him they’re uncertain about whether to show up for work.
“We're giving everyone a letter today that they can keep in their car that says they’re employees and no one's going to arrest them for driving down the road to go to work,” Underhill said.
Like many Californians, farmworkers are worried about food. Organizations like the California Farmworker Foundation in Delano are trying to bridge that gap. The group is providing weekly meals and mobile health services. Last week they served 300 and a line of cars for food went on for three miles.
“But literally you had hundreds that didn't get an opportunity to grab any food, that's how impacted the situation is here in the Central Valley,” said Hernan Hernandez, the group's executive director.
Hernandez said he is seeing growers adapt to the situation and instead of having 30 workers on at a time they stagger them in shifts of 10 to adhere to CDC guidelines.
“There's other contractors or growers that haven't done a great job, we still get phone calls about some not receiving the appropriate information; some are still scared,” Hernandez said.
In response the group has put together a list of coronavirus resources and an information hotline. If a farmworker does get sick, federal law now requires employers to provide 80 hours of paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons — up from just 24 hours in California.
Some Farms Double Sales
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The pandemic is not treating all growers equally. Farmers running community supported agriculture programs, or CSA’s, are seeing record sales. These are boxes of vegetables and other food sold weekly through a subscription.
The boxes from Terra Firma Farm in Yolo County include chard, leeks, grapefruit, mandarins, cabbage and more. Before physical distancing rules began the farm sold around 650 boxes a week. Now they’re selling more than a thousand of the boxes that range from $18 and $38.
“Our number of subscribers has jumped dramatically, about a 40 percent increase in two weeks,” said owner Paul Underhill.
Underhill is thankful because he knows of other growers that aren’t doing as well. His operation isn’t the only farm benefiting from all this home cooking. The CSA run through Shared Abundance Organic Farm in Auburn sells at a much smaller scale, but has seen sales double.
“Our numbers are now at 11 and last week they were more like four or five,” said Courtney Smith, who helps run the farm. “We have yet to do really any sort of social media or networking.”