Janine Jackson interviewed the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador about the coronavirus food crisis for the May 8, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Listeners have likely seen the images: farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs, plowing produce under. At the same time, in the same country, people line up at food banks, unable to access or afford nutritious food.
At the nexus of the health crisis and the economic crisis of Covid-19 is a food crisis. And it’s along every dimension, from farm laborers to restaurant workers to hungry people. As with so many things, the pandemic didn’t create the problems, but it’s making them harder to deny.
Ricardo Salvador is senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joins us now by phone. welcome to CounterSpin, Ricardo Salvador.
Ricardo Salvador: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JJ: If we could just talk, first, about the supply chain itself. What is it about the food system we have, that makes it a reasonable or necessary response to the crisis for some farmers to plow vegetables under that people could be eating?
RS: It has to do with the structure of agriculture, and I think your question is very well-framed. It actually is a logical thing for most farmers to plow under their food, rather than try to deal with a food system that is very specialized, that operates at very large scale. It’s very concentrated. And it operates along a few well-established channels. So it’s important to understand what those channels are, to then understand why it’s logical for farmers to do what is being reported, as well as to understand that this issue of food waste is a serious problem. And it is not exclusively on farmers. It’s an issue of the structure of the system.
So those channels I’m referring to have to do with the primary ways in which we all eat. Generalizing broadly: Prior to the pandemic, we all ate one of two ways. Either we went out someplace where somebody else took care of all the details; we don’t have to worry about what’s in season, how it’s grown, how it’s prepared; we just ask on a whim for whatever we’re in the mood for, somebody prepares it, it’s delivered to us, somebody cleans up after us.
And that system is supplied by a channel, a sector, in the food system, which is called food service. And it operates almost invisibly to the majority of us. But if you do see it, you see it in service entries and back alleys, with semi trailers delivering frozen food or packaged food in particular quantities that are suitable for the restaurant, cafeteria, the other institutions that deliver the food in the way that I described.
And, by the way, we spend most of our money for food that comes to us in that particular channel—I mean, most of the money that we spend for food, we spend for food at restaurants, or food that we eat out.
Then the other channel is the one that is overwhelmed right now, because it’s actually having to do both its own job, as well as to backstop for all the foods that we normally would be eating when we go out. And this is the grocery channel. And it’s important to understand that each of these channels have their own distribution networks, their own packaging methods, their own volume, transportation. And that if you prepare for one, you’re not prepared for the other.
RS: You’ve packaged, you’ve labeled, you’ve processed for one of them and not the other. And so the system is not very fungible. What makes the most logic to someone that just reads about all of this waste is to say, well, as you said in your question, there are all these people lined up at food pantries, because suddenly they’re unemployed. And that channel, which is referred to in the food system as the emergency food channel, actually is a redistribution channel.
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