How to Support Sustainable Food Systems During the COVID-19 Crisis

by Katherine Sacks


Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on April 17, 2020 to reflect the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 in the US.

Stuck at home, wanting to do more? As the US continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and most of the country stays at home to reduce exposure, our food system has been radically disrupted. Farmers have lost their usual buyers, farmworkers are at risk and restaurant workers have lost their jobs. Do you want to continue to support sustainable food systems and reduce your foodprint, but aren’t sure how?

Social distancing is necessary to help reduce the rate of transmission, but it’s community support that’s needed to help the farmers, food workers, sustainable shops and other food system anchors get through this challenging period. Whether you are at home in greatly impacted states like New York and New Jersey, or are practicing social distancing in a community less affected by the virus, here are some things you can do to continue to champion a better food system:

Don’t Overbuy, and Stock Your Pantry Sustainably

As you stock up on the essentials, don’t be part of the problem. As Salon’s Melanie McFarland advised, shoppers should “resist the urge to hoard.” And while you don’t need to overbuy toilet paper, it is a good idea to stock up on long-lasting pantry items like dried (or canned) beans, hardy produce like winter squash, and shelf-stable milk, sourcing local, sustainable purveyors when possible.

Make Food Choices that Support Your Values

With our day-to-day activities rapidly changing, how we source our food has been greatly impacted. But even if your local farmers’ market has closed, there are ways to continue to shop sustainably.

Support local farmers 

While many states have designated farmers’ markets as essential food sources, others have not, which means markets around the country are closing down. To continue to support your local farmers and economy, sign up for a CSA or order fresh produce, eggs, meat and other goods online directly from farmers. (Look for a CSA near you on Modern Farmer’s list.) Some farmers’ markets are setting up online ordering systems, and grocers who source from local farmers provide another option to purchase fresh, local produce.

Keep low-waste a priority

Safety is a priority, but you can still keep a low-waste lifestyle during the pandemic. Just because you have a few extra rolls of paper towels or jugs of water in the cupboard, doesn’t mean you have to use them now. Taking precautions may mean using single-use plastic you wouldn’t have normally chosen, but you can continue to keep reducing your impact by reducing waste, reusing when possible and composting food scraps. 

Grow your own food

Blogger Christine Wong recently shared five ideas for positively impacting the environment while staying at home, including tips for sprouting seeds and regrowing vegetable scraps, reducing food waste while producing your own food. We have more ideas about how to grow your own food on FoodPrint, including information on starting seeds in pots you make yourself.

Support Local and Sustainable Restaurants

As restaurants, bars and stores shutter across the country, it can feel more challenging than ever to champion local, sustainable food systems. Here are some ways you can help sustain these establishments and the people who work at them:

Support a restaurant relief fund

Organizations like the James Beard Foundation, the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Service Workers Coalition are all collecting donations to help hospitality employers cover things like rent, health insurance and lost wages and are pushing for government action to help support small and medium restaurant businesses. These organizations are also pushing for federal relief for the thousands of restaurant industry workers impacted by coronavirus, including paid sick leave and emergency pay for those who continue to work in potentially contaminated conditions. 

Buy gift cards

Help sustain your favorite local and sustainable shuttered restaurants and food shops by purchasing gift cards for future use. Websites like Give Local and Local for Later have compiled lists of restaurants nationwide that are promoting the sale of gift cards while their establishments are closed down. Many establishments are also selling merchandise online to help bring in some much-needed income.

Chip into a virtual tip jar

Some restaurants are asking for direct donations from customers and their communities through online fundraisers on platforms like GoFundMe, or have set up virtual tip jars, lists of staff members that customers can directly donate to through online payment methods such as Venmo or Paypal, to help provide for the restaurant and their employees.

Support Organizations Fighting for the Food Issues You Care About

Donating time, money and/or advocacy support to an organization that is working on relief and various aid projects to combat the impacts of the coronavirus can help immensely while keeping you and others healthy and protected at home.

Help farmers

Nonprofits like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Farmers’ Market Coalition and American Farmland Trust are working to provide relief to family farmers through aid programs and community-based efforts to invest in local produce, as well as advocating for farmers to be included in federal stimulus and relief packages.

Stand up for the health and safety of food laborers

Food and farm laborers often face difficult, unsafe working conditions, but they are on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak, working every day to make sure our food supply chain holds up while the majority of Americans stay home. The Food Chain Workers Alliance continues its mission to protect these workers and guarantee fair, safe working conditions and proper pay, as well as support workers facing job and wage loss.

Support farm to school programs

With schools closed around the country, vital farm to school programs, which help teach children about the importance of healthy fresh food and provide this food to many food-insecure communities, have been put on pause. The National Farm to School Network and FoodCorps have put together various resources to help farm to school programs, and both organizations are advocating for continued school lunch programming and extended SNAP benefits to aid the families most affected.

Give to food banks

The already overtaxed food pantry and shelter systems are facing more demand than ever. If possible, donate money instead of food, which allows the programs to purchase the exact items they need. Feeding America is a national network of food banks, pantries and meal programs; make donations directly to national programs like this, or use their directory to find local programs. And if you’re purchasing groceries online, many services have the option to donate meals to those in need, which makes stocking up and giving just a click away.

Help protect public food safety 

Just like in the private sector, many government activities are being limited to those that are “mission-critical” due to COVID-19 concerns. As of writing, the FDA has temporarily suspended routine surveillance inspections of food manufacturers and handlers. Food safety advocates fear this could just be the first food safety measure to fall by the wayside as regulations relax with smaller staff and less oversight, putting an already stressed system under more pressure. Stay informed by keeping up with watchdog organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Center for Food Safety, which help keep an eye on food safety issues like this and advocate for the safety of our health system.

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