When coronavirus restrictions shut down open-air food markets in sub-Saharan Africa, online grocery stores expanded to fill the void. The online markets came just as 73 million people in Africa were deemed acutely food insecure (without access to nutritious, affordable food), according to the World Health Organization, and another 147 million were on the brink of extreme poverty and malnutrition, according to the Washington D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
African tech companies such as Fresh In A Box are now making sure those under lockdown can get fresh food. Fresh In A Box launched in Zimbabwe in October 2018 selling surplus fruits and vegetables from local farms, but the service now distributes about 2.6 tonnes of fruits and vegetables a day from nearly 2,000 farmers, says co-founder Kudakwashe Musasiwa. Customers order online and get a weekly delivery of produce at home. Zimbabwean nurse Sinothando Mpofu says the fruits and vegetables are better quality than what’s typically sold at the supermarket and at a third of the cost.
Other online grocery services such as Uganda’s Market Garden and Namibia’s Tambula have also begun to thrive. Their success is due in part to stay-at-home orders but also to smartphone access, which has only recently reached the majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa, according to figures from the Pew Research Center.
Since mid-March, New York City has served more than 40 million free meals and counting. The city partnered with Unqork, a Manhattan-based no-code software application company, to build a digital platform allowing residents to order free meals through city-licensed taxi and ride-sharing drivers desperate for work. The city’s Emergency Food Home Delivery program is now serving nearly 900,000 meals a day, said Kathryn Garcia, the city’s Department of Sanitation commissioner, who is coordinating the meal program. Meals are prepared by 40 different vendors ranging from private catering companies to a foodservice operation that supplies meals to airlines. Vendors are typically reimbursed $7 to $9 for each prepared meal.
As the Emergency Food Home Delivery delivery program launched, the New York City Department of Education also began efforts to feed children by offering free “Grab-and-Go” meals prepared by cafeteria employees. The program quickly expanded to include adults as well, and now it is serving about 540,000 free meals a day. Combined, these two programs are serving nearly 1.5 million free meals a day.
Flames higher than 100 feet destroyed a processing and storage warehouse at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco over Memorial Day weekend. The fire occurred in Shed C of Pier 45, a storage facility that had 30 tenants. Many tenants allowed other fishers to store gear there, and the facility was home to at least 7,000 crab traps, each priced between $250 to $300. Another 2,000 shrimp traps and 1,000 black cod traps were also lost, according to Larry Collins, who runs the San Francisco Community Fishing Association.
According to fishing industry professionals, millions of dollars worth of fishing equipment were lost in the fire. The losses will hit the Dungeness crab industry especially hard hit as the industry was already struggling to recover from a slow start to the season that began several months ago. In a good year, the Dungeness crab industry can generate over $95 million. However, the industry lost millions in recent years due to whale entanglements and the crabs’ high levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin poisonous to humans. Domoic acid levels tend to increase as climates change and ocean waters rise in temperature. To help offset losses from the fire, San Francisco fishers have begun a GoFundMe campaign to replace their gear.
The United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) cautions that another 130 million people could go hungry, as up to 36 nations may face famine by year’s end. While the U.S. currently has no major food shortages, other countries such as South Sudan are at risk. The FAO published data showing that wheat prices in the capital city of Juba have increased 62% since February, and the cost of the staple food cassava (a.k.a. tapioca) shot up to 41%. “We were already facing a famine pre-corona,” said Sudan’s deputy interior minister-designate, Mabior Garang. “If you add corona to the equation, it’s crazy.”
Supply chain challenges have upended food systems in other countries as well. India is the world’s biggest rice exporter, but one of its major distributors, Shri Lal Mahal Group, can now only ship 15% to 20% of its normal volume. Shipping restrictions have also made it increasingly difficult to transport perishable products like fruits, vegetables, and fish. From January 1 through April 10, the capacity of container ships moving goods internationally decreased by 30% due to sailing cancellations. Even ships that make it to ports have faced delays due to facility shutdowns and quarantines, which have resulted in wasted cargo. Air-cargo capacity has also plummeted by nearly 35%, as approximately 85% of passenger flights around the world have been canceled. “You can have a food crisis with lots of food,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “That’s the situation we’re in.”
In Tyler, Texas, Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q temporarily closed for several weeks in April then reopened hoping to keep business running with curbside pickup. However, after owner Nick Pencis called several suppliers, it became clear that restocking their coolers with briskets would be more difficult than ever. COVID-19 has disrupted the meat supply throughout the U.S. and forced restaurant owners like Nick and Jennifer Pencis to find new brisket suppliers. Some owners are settling for no meat at all.
“At least 38 processing plants have ceased operations at some point since the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a report in USA Today. As a result, in the first week of May, only 425,000 cattle were processed, down from 605,000 cattle the previous year. That’s 360,000 fewer briskets. The average cost of whole Choice briskets also more than doubled from $2.80 per pound in late April to $5.98 per pound in early May. That’s a price hike many BBQ joints can’t afford or can’t afford to pass on to their customers. Going forward, smaller beef processors could be a lifeline, as the big meatpacking plants may soon begin grinding briskets to meet consumer demand for burgers at fast-food restaurants, which are doing swift business while high-end steakhouses remain closed. Fortunately, most Texas BBQ joints are still open, but many are changing what they cook and how they do business. “Not cooking brisket for a little while might not be the end of the world,” said Reid Guess of Guess Family Barbecue in Waco, Texas.
Last month, the average price of groceries reached their highest monthly increase in nearly 50 years, largely due to high prices for meat and eggs. In April, customers spent 4.3 percent more for meats, poultry, fish and eggs, 1.5 percent more for fruits and vegetables, and 2.9 percent more for cereals and bakery products. On average, this 2.6 percent jump in grocery prices marked the largest increase in the cost of food since February 1974. Among cereal and bakery products alone, April’s 2.9 percent price increase was the steepest it has been in a single month since 1919.
During the same month, 1 in 5 American households became food insecure (lacked consistent access to affordable food) due to the loss of 20 million jobs, putting enormous pressure on both families and food banks. Inflated grocery prices have mostly resulted from supply chain challenges brought on by a combination of restaurant closures, new consumer food buying habits, and limited production in processing plants due to COVID-19. Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), has asked Congress to almost double the minimum SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefit from $16 to $30 per month and to increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent. FRAC has also advocated for suspending all SNAP administrative rules that may end or lessen benefits during the coronavirus crisis.
When restaurants began closing in March, the owner of premium meat company Nicky USA, Geoff Latham, braced himself for a shut down. High-end restaurants usually make up 85% of the Oregon-based company’s sales of Wagyu beef steaks, Kurobuta pork chops, and game meats like bison, elk, venison, and ostrich. However, his oldest son Gerick came up with a plan. They would sell their remaining and incoming inventory direct to consumers and grocery stores through online sales, something they had never done before. They still had to lay off some staff, but the strategy has helped the company survive and find new customers.
Nicky USA is one of 2,200 small U.S. meatpacking plants that employ under 500 workers. They now join companies like Allen Brothers, Porter Road, and Snake River Farms in selling direct to customers and retail outlets instead of supplying mainly restaurants. By selling direct, Nicky USA was able to recoup about 40% of its business just 8 weeks into the pandemic. Grocery stores, which had accounted for only 13% of sales, now make up 50% of the company’s profits. Nicky USA also began selling non-meat products such as toilet paper, paper napkins, and CBD products, an idea that stemmed from Latham’s youngest son, Gerod. To Geoff Latham, every sale and online order represents “a blip of hope” in a dire situation where “the finish line keeps moving back on us.” .
Americans are cooking at home more than ever, and meat sales skyrocketed 41% this April compared to the previous year’s sales, according to Nielsen research. However, meat supplies may not be able to keep up with demand in the coming months. The coronavirus continues to disrupt production at U.S. meatpacking plants, and fast food chains such as Wendy’s have already stopped serving burgers in some stores. Meat industry analysts advise consumers to expect higher prices and limited selection in grocery chains. Some grocers such as Kroger, Costco, and Albertsons have begun restricting meat purchases to prepare for potential shortages. At ShopRite stores, customers are capped at two items each for beef, pork, and chicken. “We’ve been adapting and adjusting on a week-to-week basis,” said Karen Meleta, Vice President of consumer and corporate communications for the grocery chain.
Meanwhile, sales of plant-based alternatives continue to climb. This week, Kroger began selling Impossible Foods plant-based burgers and other products at 1,700 of its supermarkets. Beyond Meat has also expanded sales of its plant-based meat products to warehouse brands like Walmart and BJ’s Wholesale Club. Beyond Meat Chief Executive Ethan Brown said the company plans to discount products and sell bulk packages to attract new customers over the next several months.
Demand for fresh eggs has soared as more Americans cook at home during the coronavirus lockdown. Egg prices have also tripled in some states, prompting lawsuits against Cal-Maine Foods, the nation’s largest producer of eggs. Two separate lawsuits have come from the Texas attorney general and a group of private individuals in California.
In March, the average wholesale price of a dozen Grade A large eggs increased from $1.01 to $3.07, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lawsuits from Texas and California describe the inflation as excessive, unfair, illegal profit. The California lawsuit included several of other egg producers and major grocery chains as well, such as Whole Foods and Costco, totaling 25 defendants. “As in any time of economic turmoil, there are those who seek to profit from the misery of millions,” read the complaint. Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, accused Cal-Maine of inflating its egg prices 300% and mentioned one of its Texas subsidiaries, Wharton County Foods, in the suit as well.
The nation’s largest egg producer has strongly denied the allegations. “Cal-Maine has not exploited this tragic national pandemic for gain,” it said in a statement. Other accused companies have spoken out as well. “This case has no merit,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, public relations director of Trader Joe’s, and the popular grocery chain has since been dropped from the lawsuit. Costco issued a statement denying any price gouging, saying it had also lodged complaints with government agencies over egg suppliers’ prices. The firm that filed the California suit on behalf of defrauded consumers has not responded to requests for comments.
Last Sunday, Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad in multiple newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. The ad warned consumers and government officials that the U.S. food supply chain may be disrupted as a result of COVID-19, causing an increase in meat prices.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” said John H. Tyson, chairman of the executive board. “We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.” The company claims “millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the market, causing prices to rise. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects beef prices to rise 1 to 2 percent this year, poultry as much as 1.5 percent and pork between 2 and 3 percent. Farmers will also continue to depopulate animals that can’t be sent to closed slaughterhouses, wasting significant amounts of meat that would otherwise be consumed. For instance, the Delmarva Poultry Industry reports that 2 million chickens were euthanized this month due to worker shortages.
Meatpacking plant closures have stemmed mostly from the crowded conditions in consolidated production facilities. “This spacing is difficult in a high-speed assembly-line environment,” said Gail Eisnitz, author of the book Slaughterhouse. Tyson workers claim that proper social distancing is nearly impossible on the line, and spacing will obviously slow down production and reduce profits. Workers also claim they were given confusing instructions about when to return to work and whether or not to come in while sick. In a statement last week, Tyson assured that it is testing all employees for symptoms of COVID-19 before reopening its shuttered plants. The company has installed infrared scanners to detect fevers and has said employees will have their temperatures regularly checked before shifts when the plants resume work.