“Unprecedented Year”, “You’re on mute” and other phrases I hope will soon disappear from regular parlance

In early March of last year I was in New Orleans to host a day-long workshop as part of the National Good Food Network Conference. The workshop was the culmination of many months of hard work to develop a set of nationally harmonized metrics for local food. I started the week hashing out facilitation strategy with my colleagues while we cracked open a pile of crawfish. Mid-week, I sat with other folks from Kentucky strategizing how we might organize to distribute food from kitchens and cafeterias that were closing to those who would be hungry. On that Friday, the conference canceled sessions and I holed up in my hotel room watching case numbers rise on television and counting the hours until my flight home.

Those were the last meals I would share with friends for more than a year. In a life organized by gathering – in the classroom, at the table, in the field – we were all suddenly fixed in position, tethered and apart. The contraction of our worlds brought home the sweetness of being together.

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Catching up on our COVID-19 year

In the early days of the pandemic our Food Connection team was in in rapid response mode: creating practical social distancing guides for farmers markets and launching our first virtual cooking classes. As the realities of our pandemic year came into focus, we expanded our work. Chef Tanya completley re-designed our culinary curriculum and developed a seasonal eating hub so CSA farmers and their new-to-local-food eaters would have an readymade repository of recipes, quick tips, and inspiration. Bryan figured out how to do on farm food-safety tours via video chat, all while welcoming their second child into the world and keeping up with his regular schedule of GAP audit support. Dr. Jacobsen’s new graduate student Chelsea arrived to a locked-down Lexington, and while we haven’t met in person, I’m already excited to see where her cold-season produce research is headed.

I’ve done my best to find ways to be useful, at least I think; Usefulness and Helpfulness being the highest virtues of my Midwestern upbringing. A major portion of my time is devoted to serving as a lead investigator with a USDA cooperative study to support the adaptation and resilience of regional food systems. Along with colleagues from Colorado State University, Penn State, and a whole host of USDA AMS staffers, we’re working directly with leaders from 17 different communities of practice from across the local food spectrum to identify, share, and strategize effective ways our farmers, entrepreneurs, school systems, restaurants, fisheries, and grain mills (to name just a few) have adapted during the pandemic. We’re now turning our attention to how we might continue to leverage those innovations to foster a more resilient food system moving into the future.

Sit and think a while

Staying in place offered the opportunity to sit with many of the uncomfortable truths about our food system, and their consequences for our community. After recognizing that older individuals are at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications, we were also reminded that Kentucky has more than twice the national rate of children raised by grandparents[1].  When public schools closed, we were met with the staggering statistic that 29.6 million U.S. children rely on their school cafeterias to feed them at least one meal a day, with 21.8 million of those receiving free or reduced cost meals ($0.40). In April, while panic-buying surged and offerings at meat counters became thin, 44% of all the COVID-19 cases in South Dakota were traced to a single meat packing plant[2] [3]. Black Americans comprise 12% of the U.S. population, while nearly 20% of all food service workers are Black. According to a report last summer, the death rate of Black Americans from COVID-19 stood at 3.8 times the rate as that for white Americans, higher than all other minority groups[4] [5] .

Don’t call it a comeback

It has been a year to rethink, reframe, and reposition. On a panel conversation the USDA project hosted in January, we were joined by a commissioner and a deputy commissioner of Agriculture, a law and policy specialist, and Liz Wills-O’Gilvie, a local food policy leader form Massachusetts who does tremendous work addressing racial and economic inequity in her local food system. In her closing reflection, she told those of us listening to stop saying she was ‘inspiring.’  She went on to say that the hard truths we have confronted during the pandemic have provided the opportunity to consider the conversation around equity differently. “Not from an “Oh, we need to go help those poor people,” she said “but from the recognition that “Oh, those poor people have some good ideas we could build on…we are not just waiting for things to get done. We’re all ready to show up with you. And I want you to be ready to show up with us.” This is a call to move past inspiration to action.

It has been a year of hard reckonings long overdue. Vulnerabilities we diligently ignored were laid open, and the value of that which was taken for granted felt in its absence. Not always. Not everywhere. Yet enough to shake open the shutters, shine a light, invite a conversation that could carry us towards a different horizon. To paraphrase Ms. Willis-O’Gilvie, while I’m not always optimistic about the particulars, I am always hopeful for our community.

[1] https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2018/11/23/kentucky-grandparents-little-support-foster-care-relatives/1929014002/

[2] https://www.ers.usda.gov/covid-19/rural-america/meatpacking-industry/

[3] https://thecounter.org/covid-19-outbreak-meatpacking-safety-osha-california/

[4] https://www.umass.edu/employmentequity/how-covid-exposes-healthcare-deficits-black-workers

[5] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/increased-risk-illness.html

Cover photo credit: Getty Images via https://www.delish.com/food/a32907227/how-to-shop-safely-at-the-farmers-market-coronavirus-food-safety/