It is hard to address the policy regarding the food chain since the biggest issue is the lack of policy. On Friday, April 11, 2020 KQED (the public radio station in San Francisco) reported that there is a cruel irony in the fact that food banks are facing large increases in demand they are unable to meet while, at the same time, farmers are letting crops rot due to lack of buyers, transport, and workers. Some farmers are just not harvesting their crops because the restaurants, schools and other sources they typically serve are closed. These crops could be utilized by food banks and grocery stores though they are not packaged in a way which serves these sites. Similarly, milk and dairy production demand is down in typical sites, like schools and pizza places, causing farmers to dump milk.
Also, immigrant workers are not coming to work in the fields so farmers are not able to get work done even when they have the potential to sell their products. Workers in food processing are becoming infected with the virus causing production slowdowns and plant closings. Given these pervasive impediments, the complexity of keeping the food supply adequate becomes apparent. Farmers are just abandoning crops, from tomatoes, to fruits, and dairy products which could go to the unemployed, hospitals and other institutions requiring meals for workers and for clients as well as food banks. Some farmers have been able to redirect portions of their crops to food banks but are being paid at a much lower rate, making it hard for them to break even and plant the next crop.
Mandates to “shelter in place” do not apply to essential workers but social distancing does. Food processing and packaging plants are frequently unable to meet social distancing standards and have not been providing adequate protective gear, or other favorable working conditions. In many plants, workers share lockers, break/food rooms, and space on the floor. Several companies have reported deaths and some plants and factories have closed or slowed production. Vice President Pence has vowed to “work tirelessly” to ensure worker safety but the trends show otherwise. While some plants have closed others have experienced worker protests regarding conditions. In response, some companies such as Cargill, Tyson, and JBS have instituted precautions ranging from taking temperatures before a worker goes on the floor, to providing protective gear, deep cleaning, and social distancing measures. Nevertheless, plants in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and other states have been shuttered.
It does not take much imagination to see that policies need to be instituted to make sure that workers have protections; farmers get subsidized to hire workers; essential transportation be maintained; and aid be provided to farmers to plant their next crops even if they do not have the money to buy provisions and hire workers. These things would take government leadership and a cogent policy of additional relief through easily accessed programs, grants and loans to buy the services needed. Food plants must get help in providing protective gear and hygiene, as well as moderated production allowing for fewer workers who can be spaced with social distancing parameters in mind. The action should be swift and comprehensive but Congress and the White House, yet again, seem stalled.
- https://www.nelp.org/resources-to-support-workers-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/ National Employment Law Project provides information, data, and sources of aid.