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Hopeful 2021 will be a recovery year

By David Kruse - Columnist | Dec 22, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic that has ravaged the nation has put our food supply chain to the test. While it rocked and rolled for a period of time, it responded with some remarkable resiliency to the pressures and challenges. The food supply chain that is functioning today is much different than the one preceding the pandemic. The food industry has had to redirect a major flow of production from restaurants, hospitality and commercial venues through supermarkets and direct consumer access.

Supply chains had to alter everything from packaging to transportation flows to reconnect with the volume of food delivery to keep the nation fed. It was an exercise in great creativity that was accomplished in a very short period of time with some extremely proficient management. In the interim between the first and second waves of the pandemic, the food supply chains had reconfigured themselves to the point where they have so far withstood the pressure of the second wave that was stronger than the first. I think that is amazing. I am particularly impressed with how the food supply chain managed the health risk of their own workers. Many of these workers have high exposure to the virus which makes keeping them safe more difficult. I am probably speaking a little too soon as we are not through the second wave yet and the pressure has not relented. Yet the industry learned very quickly from the experience gained from the first wave and adapted or would not be functioning as well as they appear to be today. One example of flexibility of workforce management is how the meat industry ably reduced meat processing allowing it to draw workers from advanced processing in order to keep the core meat production sustained at levels that have allowed producers access to enough kill capacity to avoid backlogging feedlots and hog barns as they did last spring during the first wave of Covid.

There is more bone-in ham as a result but we can debone our own ham if necessary. I don’t like pre-sliced ham anyway.

Essential food chain workers are ahead of the general populace in the triage of who gets vaccine first. The sooner the better. Any job that requires exposure to the general public brings with it higher risk. Yet store shelves have not gone empty. Food supply chain workers showed a dedication to the importance of their jobs to meet a critical public need. While this is essentially a success story there is also a dark side to the food component of the pandemic.

A lot of people are finding themselves in line at food banks waiting for hours to get the food necessary to feed their families. That need is unfortunate but for the most part is being met. Many of these people never dreamt that they would be in the dire situations that they are in today. Most of it came to be under circumstances that they cannot help. Most people in the food lines would choose not to be there. I have empathy for these people. I am again surprised that empathy for the hungry is not a universal expression of compassion. Some taunt the lines, still focused on perceptions that somehow the charity is taken advantage of. Supermarkets report that shoplifting of food items has doubled. I find that sad too. Store owners say that it is much worse than during a typical economic downturn so is pandemic related as well. These are desperate people trying to survive. They are stealing food, baby formula and diapers. They intend to consume what they steal, not sell it for profit. Store owners are reportedly not making criminals of them, just barring them from returning to their stores. Neither management nor the police have time for these low impact crimes. Their alternative was a food line or a food bank and as noted, often these people are humiliated by their circumstances and wish avoid the public exposure of not making it on their own. Some are trying to keep that from their own families.

Farmers have been through something like this before a long time ago. Ken Burns, in his documentary on the Dust Bowl, talked of farmers, believing in conservatism, personal responsibility and being the breadwinner for the family, who refused to take government aid. Only when their families were literally starving did they relent and it broke some physically and mentally. Recent actions had reduced federal food programs which is one reason why private charitable organizations have been so overwhelmed. The government did fund the new Federal Food box program which has proven to be immensely helpful in connecting food to those in need. Many people had never been in such dire straits before and frankly did not know what to do to get help. These are not chronic poor welfare recipients. For the people who lost their jobs with eviction notices forced to rely on social health and nutrition programs because of the pandemic, this is as hard a thing as it gets.

To one degree or another this personal anguish is playing out in families everywhere across the country and I think we need to give them a break to get through this. They are not bad people. They are desperate in desperate circumstances. “But for the grace of God” so to speak. The fact that we cannot fully understand what they are going through means that we are blessed. We are so blessed that the ag sector and food supply chains have it within their means to feed our population. 11% of Americans, an increase of 8% have been thrown into poverty by the pandemic. 54 million Americans, an increase of 45% in a year are having trouble meeting their nutritional needs. We are going to get through this. Next generation vaccine technology is currently being distributed into the arms of Americans so that 2021 will be the recovery year for the economy, jobs and a reshaped new normal. Fortunately, food is not expensive. When you can buy ham for 99 cents lb and buy canned corn and green beans for 29 cents can on special, food dollars go a long way.

CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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