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COVID-19 Impacts on Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition: Sounding the Alarm

Impacts of COVID-19 on the food sector are among its most visible and important economic consequences of this historic pandemic. Lines represent an average of selected companies in each sector of the food system. The effects of total or partial lockdowns is driving a sudden shift to consuming food at home--and the purchase of more packaged foods.

Risks of food shortage resulted from outbreaks at packing plants and among farmworkers. One of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. is at a low-wage meatpacking plant in South Dakota; for the big agricultural commodities, a lower demand for livestock products has outpaced any constraints on their supply. This is actually leading to steep declines in commodity prices. For many people, the loss of school food and other meal assistance programs has multiplied the consequences of falling incomes, with dire consequences especially for children and the elderly. 

Beyond the direct impacts of infection and illness, much of the economic harm has been to low-income people via the food system (i.e., the sudden simultaneous loss of service jobs) and changes to nutrition assistance such as school meals, which are overwhelmingly considered to be safety nets, food banks, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also called SNAP). 

Companies that supply institutional food have plummeted in value, as investors expect demand to stay low for months to come. In fact, the largest U.S. food service suppliers, Aramark and Sysco, are estimated to be worth half of their pre-COVID-19 market valuation. This is a significantly larger decline than other large U.S. companies in the S&P 500 index, while food retailers like Kroger and packaged food manufacturers such as Whole Foods and General Mills have held or increased their value.

Our rapid shift to meals at home, as opposed to meals at school, workplaces/institutions, and restaurants, brought a dramatic change in what we eat. This is where I have reservations about food at home. You see, in the past, consumption at home has generally been more nutritious than meals away from home. However, that could change due to COVID-29 if fruits and vegetables or other perishable foods are replaced with more shelf-stable packaged foods. Is this sustainable for 2 months? 6 months?

I am especially concerned for our most vulnerable populations, who rely on school meals and other feeding programs which try to provide balanced meals. Expanding these services as well as SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to allow more home delivery of healthier foods will play a big role in sustaining health in the near future. The role of diet quality and immune response is clear, and I have written extensively about it:

Immune Boosters to Fight Colds and Flu

Boosting the Immune System in Pediatrics

Drugs & Immune System Support: What We Know and What We Don’t

 

This calls for the need for a variety of healthy whole foods during this time because obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and immunosuppressive conditions are associated with disease severity among confirmed cases of COVID-19.

What this Means:  COVID-19’s impact on agriculture, food and nutrition are driven by disease transmission and severity. As a result, poor diets from increased packaged foods (whose most visible consequence is obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and immune dysfunction) will continue to be associated with the harms of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases--with the most direct effect on diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. 

As we move into the summer growing season, we’ll get a better picture of how social distancing affects consumers’ behavior and how food system players (large and small) respond to the shift in demand. It’s likely that crops with mechanized production, like corn, tomatoes, and some other fruits and vegetables, will continue to be widely available. But crops that rely on human labor, like strawberries, will be more subject to disruption. This is why we must support our local and small farmers. People need food and they need farmers. Yet, with farm laborers getting sick (or fearing to work in close quarters with others), supplies of these smaller and healthier crops could dwindle, which could cause prices to rise. It’s a troubling possibility because smaller crops are really important in a nutritious diet. We want to have these foods available even if it’s a really stressful time and people are getting sick.

Bottom lineRight now, the goal at this point is to make sure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious, non-packaged fresh foods.



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References

McKinsey & Company (2020). “Lives and livelihoods: Assessing the near-term impact of COVID-19 on US workers.” Retrieved from: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/lives-and-livelihoods-assessing-the-near-term-impact-of-covid-19-on-us-workers

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2020). “New U.S. Food Expenditure Estimates Find Food-Away-From-Home Spending Is Higher Than Previous Estimates.” Economic Research Service. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2018/november/new-us-food-expenditure-estimates-find-food-away-from-home-spending-is-higher-than-previous-estimates/

Author
Payal Bhandari M.D. Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is one of U.S.'s top leading integrative functional medical physicians and the founder of San Francisco' top ranked medical center, SF Advanced Health. Her well-experienced holistic healthcare team collaborates together to deliver whole-person personalized care and combines the best in Western and Eastern medicine. By being an expert of cell function, Dr. Bhandari defines the root cause of illness and is able to subside any disease within weeks to months. She specializes in cancer prevention and reversal, digestive & autoimmune disorders. Dr. Bhandari received her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology in 1997 and Doctor of Medicine degree in 2001 from West Virginia University. She the completed her Family Medicine residency in 2004 from the University of Massachusetts and joined a family medicine practice in 2005 which was eventually nationally recognized as San Francisco’s 1st patient-centered medical home. To learn more, go to www.sfadvancedhealth.com.

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