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COVID-19 is pushing our food system to its limits (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a series covering the impact of COVID-19 on the American food system and solutions recommended by local leaders.

Authors: Caitlin Morelli

Read Part 2 here.

If there’s one thing Ismail Samad wants you to know, it’s that his community is, and has always been, resilient.

Samad works for CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), a nonprofit food development organization based in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood incubating over 50 diverse food businesses annually, including wholesalers, food trucks and caterers. CWK provides shared kitchen space combined with wrap around business and technical assistance, and coordinated access to markets. These efforts strengthen the capacity, connections, and collective power of entrepreneurs to start successful food businesses and build a new food economy grounded in racial, social, and economic justice.

When COVID-19 reached the U.S., local colleges and anchor institutions showed the earliest signs of trouble. All seven of CWK’s academic partners either issued sudden move-out notices to students or significantly altered on-campus operations that have also put hourly food and facility workers out of work. While a few local hospitals have ramped up their orders, it will not be enough to survive.

With many CWK businesses relying on these sales channels and long-standing commitments, canceled orders cut off critical revenue streams. With nearly all orders canceled, $250k in projected sales have disappeared in a matter of days. Samad and his team have been breaking this news to members, each with their own network of employees and local growers supported by this revenue.

Diverse food businesses like the ones at CommonWealth Kitchen, typically operate on slim margins with little to no reserve funds, and few friends and family to offer emergency support. In the best of times, these businesses are challenging to run.

With college closures and a complete halt in corporate and social catering, these businesses face the reality of indefinite closure, leading to a cascade of impacts on the growers, distributors, and production staff. The interdependence of this system is both necessary and a source of destruction in times of crisis.

For CommonWealth Kitchen, COVID-19 has meant a steady stream of impossible decisions.

Without members making use of the space, CWK is confronting major losses as they consider their own run rate. After only two weeks since the start of the panic in the U.S., Samad and his team decided to close their doors as of March 20th, effectively shutting off a major lifeline to their members and staff.

“When you’re in the fortunate position to create and sustain an ecosystem, to create needed opportunities for people, you must also deal with the opposite side: what happens when you don’t have the funds to sustain it and hold up that ecosystem,” said Samad.

CWK’s reality has shifted into emergency operations: turning on a dime to use their resources and infrastructure to keep purchasing and producing food for senior centers and meal sites for low-income communities. They are working around the clock and paying people whatever they can, although that future is uncertain.

Samad’s hope is that an ecosystem of community partners (they’re in early conversations with Community Servings, Greater Boston Food Bank, and others ) can lead an inclusive emergency food response that includes as many as possible.

Impact on frontline workers

At the community level, grocers, food packers, and farmers have been elevated to modern-day heroes as they put themselves at greater risk of contact every day to keep society functioning. Besides pharmacies, these are the businesses that will not close their doors.

These workers are undeniably putting their physical well-being at risk while many others involved in prepared food — restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders, dishwashers, caterers, waiters, and other service workers — are sacrificing their economic well-being to protect public health, in many cases before local governments officially mandated closures.

The service industry supports some of our most vulnerable workers that grapple with losing their livelihood while lacking access to basic support services that aid recovery. For example, Congress’s emergency coronavirus bill allows businesses with less than 50 employees to seek exemption from providing paid sick days.

In Massachusetts alone, many of the 300,000 people working in the restaurant industry could be temporarily out of jobs in light of Governor Baker’s order that all restaurants and bars must stop dine-in operations until April 6. While many restaurants have shifted towards take-out and curbside pick-up options, others are cutting hours and temporarily laying off entire staff.

These are the people keeping our lifelines open and ensuring that our country stays fed through crises, yet we force upon them the impossible decision to choose between their health and their income without any indication that they will receive the kind of recovery funding that will likely be afforded to powerful industries like travel and tourism.

An opportunity to hit reset

The global food system we depend on is a feat of modern technology. It depends on complex technologies, logistics, and human ingenuity, to grant us steady access to products from around the world at prices we take for granted. Yet it is precisely this interdependence that may bring down this fragile system in times of crisis.

Few worry that we will face food shortages. Shelves continue to be restocked. But global events are largely out of our hands, and an interconnected network of local food systems may be our best defense.

Luckily, local food systems are stepping up. Local farmer’s markets, community-based agriculture, and ecosystem-builders like CWK are providing a buffer to global events like COVID-19 to ensure that all people continue to have steady food access. Our food trucks were out there as long as they could survive, and now we’re shifting into emergency production. Yes, there’s the feeling that they have to make money and pay their people, but everyone is doing whatever they can. People need to eat. says Samad.

In addition to very specific policy recommendations, including that the federal government must immediately pass a trillion-dollar Small Business Bailout, Jen Faigel, Executive Director of CWK adds:

“This is not hyperbole. The devastation of the restaurant, food truck, catering industry and farmers markets is very real, especially for businesses in low-income communities and those owned by people of color who in many cases lack safety nets. We will see widespread bankruptcies, unemployment, and shuttered storefronts if we don’t act fast. Immediate grant funds are needed. Loans won’t do it.”

Small business supporters like CommonWealth Kitchen pause at encouraging their members to take loans, even at zero interest, at times of such uncertainty. To get over this first hurdle, grants are desperately needed. Many have called on funders to increase their giving.

When we come out on the other side, we must ask ourselves if these systems we’ve built will meet future crises, starting with climate change. Will this moment be the wake-up call, the reset button, the pivot point where we build out a social infrastructure that can hold all of us with more girth and power than anything before,” as expressed by Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute.

Whatever the moment is, let it be a moment to pause.

To take the action we need, to advocate for our communities, and to reimagine what a more equitable food system looks like, one that embodies a deep respect and gratitude for everyone who keeps food on our plates, even in times like this.


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