On April 21, the United Nations projected that because of Covid-19, the number of people facing severe food insecurity worldwide could double to 265 million. The same week, in the United States, the five-week total of job losses rose to a staggering 26 million, pushing millions more into food insecurity.
Amid uncertainty and confusion at the onset of the pandemic, the CSIS Global Food Security Program responds to some of the most critical, and frequently asked, questions about food security and safety.
Updated April 24, 2020
Are we facing a global food crisis?
At the beginning of 2020, 135 million people around the world were already facing extreme hunger. According to the World Food Program, that figure could rise to a staggering 265 million people by the end of this year. In remarks delivered to the UN Security Council on April 21, UN World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley said, “In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries.”
Yet it is not just the emerging economic catastrophe stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic that could well give rise to a global food crisis. Many of the most vulnerable parts of the world are concurrently struggling with other threats to food insecurity: protracted conflicts, recurrent droughts, and the worst locust infestation in decades.
Are we at risk of food shortages or price spikes?
At this point, global food prices are stable. In March 2020, the Food Price Index calculated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that, despite surges in “panic-buying” among consumers in many countries, global prices actually dropped 4.3 percent from February 2020. This was largely a result of Covid-19-related demand contractions amid lockdowns and quarantines.
Likewise, global food supplies are adequate. For instance, the FAO’s estimate for global cereal production in 2019 is 2.3 percent higher than cereal production levels in 2018. In the United States, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue confirmed food supplies are plentiful during a Coronavirus Task Force Press Briefing in mid-April.
That said, we still don’t know what the medium- and long-term impacts of Covid-19 will be on global food security. For now, there are several near-term dynamics to keep in mind.
The first relates to food export restrictions. As of April 24, 14 countries had food export bans in place for 20 different products. This could be worrisome; in 2007, such trade restrictions were a major contributor to the doubling of world food prices. Analysts have made it very clear that, given ample global food supplies, export bans are the wrong way for governments to cope with economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic. (Countries are taking many other measures to assist the vulnerable right now—more on that here.) The good news is that food export bans have not increased substantially in recent weeks.
Second, the pandemic will impact global food security both directly and indirectly. As the Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition explained recently, the crisis is “already affecting food systems directly through impacts on food supply and demand, and indirectly—but just as importantly—through decreases in purchasing power, the capacity to produce and distribute food, and the intensification of care tasks, all of which will have differentiated impacts and will more strongly affect the poor and vulnerable.”
Finally, local food price shocks may be present even in the absence of global food price increases. For example, World Food Program’s Market Monitor reports that, in Q1 of 2020, some 15 countries saw the cost of a basic basket of food increase severely (more than 10 percent).
Are we seeing any bottlenecks in the U.S. food supply chain?
Yes: slaughterhouses. For example, according to the New York Times, about 50 cattle slaughterhouses account for around 98 percent of all slaughtering and processing in the United States. “Shutting down one plant, even for a few weeks, is like closing an airport hub,” write the journalists Michael Corkery and David Yaffe-Bellany. “It backs up hog and beef production across the country, crushes prices paid to farmers and eventually leads to months of meat shortages.”
As of April 22, an estimated 13 major meatpacking facilities had shuttered their operations on account of coronavirus infections among workers. According to reporting from Bloomberg, the plants account for fully one-quarter of the United States’ hog-slaughtering capacity. Meat shortages are expected two weeks from now, according to this reporting. Clearly, this is bad news for hog farmers: prices for pigs are plummeting, as there are more pigs than can be currently processed.
How is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting farmers?
In many ways at once. For example, the U.S. agricultural system is facing severe labor challenges. According to the American Farm Bureau, among farmers’ and ranchers’ biggest Covid-19-related concerns is the availability of farm labor, since much of it is sourced through the H-2A visa program that was temporarily suspended in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In late March, the U.S. State Department moved to ease the H-2A restrictions. (Labor constraints could lead to lower supply of, and thus higher prices for, farm inputs like fertilizer, seeds, and animal feed, all of which would eat away at farmers’ bottom lines.) On April 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). The two major elements of the program include $16 billion of direct support for farmers and ranchers, and procurement by USDA of $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat originally destined for outlets like restaurants that have temporarily or permanently closed.
The outlook for farmers in low- and middle-income countries—where agriculture accounts for a greater share of GDP, relative to wealthier countries—is worse. As a recent piece from the Agricultural Market Information System points out, agriculture in these countries is labor-intensive, so quarantine measures, self-isolation, and aversion behavior in response to an outbreak “would therefore cut the [labor] supply, potentially resulting in acreage contractions, limiting crop management and ultimately curbing harvests.” Moreover, “. . . low reserves of food staples, a common characteristic of low-income countries and households, limit the ability to modulate food supplies in instances of production shocks and interruptions to trade, extenuating vulnerabilities.”
Why are farmers being forced to destroy their harvests?
Farmers of all sizes across the United States—from dairy farmers in Wisconsin to green bean farmers in Florida—have been forced to destroy harvests amid a severe drop-off in demand stemming from the closures of restaurants, schools, hotels, and other food service outlets. The amount of food waste is catastrophic. According to reporting on the topic from The New York Times, “The nation’s largest dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping as many as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.”
The issue is not supply itself but “matching that supply with demand and getting it to where it’s needed most,” as The Guardian put it. In its article, a Texas food bank CEO explains, “The reality is what makes the food chain work normally is there are just tens of thousands of arrangements that have been developed over time in order to match supply and demand. Then you just suddenly break all that and you’re trying to, with voluntary relationships, piece something together in a very short timeframe,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of failure.” To learn more about U.S. food supply chain dynamics amid the Covid-19 pandemic, see this piece from Civil Eats.
Are U.S. food workers vulnerable?
Yes, exceedingly so. Many jobs in the U.S. food system have long been considered difficult, owing to occupational hazards like tough working conditions, low pay, and unpaid sick leave. But the Covid-19 pandemic has made some of these jobs deadly. To date, the crisis has claimed the lives of at least 40 U.S. grocery store workers while infecting thousands of meatpackers and at least 100 USDA inspectors. The federal relief bill passed in late March, which provided up to $23.5 billion for the agricultural industry, does not, according to reporting from The Atlantic, include funding for worker protections like personal protective equipment, hazard pay, or paid sick leave.
The number of food insecure people continues to grow as unemployment soars nationwide. How can I help?
There are a number of organizations working tirelessly through the Covid-19 outbreak to help meet the needs of the most vulnerable. However, these vital resources are becoming limited as unemployment soars, diagnoses rise, and financial assistance dwindles. In New York City alone, the epicenter of the Covid-19 epidemic in the United States, reported nearly 40 percent of its food pantries and soup bank network have had to close.
If you have resources to contribute to the Covid-19 response, consider making a financial donation to a food bank. For food banks, cash goes farther than food donations. And please consider buying only what you need at the grocery store so that others in the community can access supplies they need.
Official guidance encourages households to procure food supplies for two-week periods, but this poses extreme challenges for many families. Moreover, studies find that those who live in lower income communities are more vulnerable to chronic health conditions—the same conditions that can make the coronavirus up to 10 times more deadly.
In order to help SNAP/WIC beneficiaries, are there any foods I should avoid purchasing?
To help those who receive Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, try your best to avoid purchasing food items that have the “WIC” label on the price tag. For a full list of foods that can be purchased, check the USDA website or your state WIC website. If avoiding the WIC-labeled item is not possible, then avoid buying that item in large quantities. And keep in mind, some food items that qualify for WIC purchases are unlabeled.
Food Safety & HealthFor what period of time should I stock my pantry?
Two weeks, according to guidance from the CDC. This is consistent with advice from experts at Johns Hopkins University as well as with general advice on emergency preparedness from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Although “pantry loading” for items like dried beans, powdered milk, and canned meat is on the rise in light of Covid-19 concerns, the good news is that grocery store supply chains remain intact. Grocers have reassured U.S. consumers that their inventories are adequate to meet the surging demand. “For the long term, H-E-B is in a good in-stock position on many of the items our customers need, and we are working around the clock to restock our shelves,” the company said in a statement recently.
Grocery stores are handling the uptick in demand in a number of ways. H-E-B and Wegmans are limiting purchases on popular items like bread, eggs, and milk. Kroger is hiring more workers. Walmart is reducing its hours to allow for consistent restocking. Whole Foods is temporarily closing its hot bars, salad bars, soup bars, and self-serve pizza stations.
However, consumers still have an important role to play in self-policing their purchasing. Many food banks across the nation are experiencing an increase in demand as donations from retailers dwindle—due in large part to sweeping panic buying. As Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program, told The Guardian, “The supply chain is strong,” but the number of food insecure people is continuously increasing. As Covid-19 continues to fuel an increase in unemployment, sticking to the CDC’s guidance of a two-week supply is not just about easing grocery store pains, but about keeping more vulnerable neighbors well-nourished.
What are some tips for stocking my pantry on a budget?
For many Americans, the coronavirus is leading to smaller paychecks as retail and service industry employers temporarily shut their doors. But we all have to eat healthily despite tight budgets. Here are eight practical ways to stretch your dollars at the grocery store.
- Make Your Menu: Time permitting, write out a basic meal plan for the week and the groceries you’ll need for it.
- Respect the Freezer: Frozen fruits and vegetables are a cost-effective source of nutrition.
- Play the Sale: Look for discounts, coupons, and sales, especially on store brands, which usually cost less.
- Go Big: Buy in bulk when you can (e.g., purchase a whole chicken instead of just chicken breasts). Freeze what you don’t immediately need.
- Go Home: If you have time, prepare food yourself instead of buying prepared or frozen meals. Thirty minutes will give you enough time to bring together simple, tasty meals.
- Read the Fine Print: Compare unit prices (dollars per pound or per ounce) listed on price tags to find the cheapest brand.
- Hold the Steak: Because meat can be a relatively expensive source of protein, look to supplement it with plant-based sources of protein like beans, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta.
- Shop the Season: Off-season produce is almost always more expensive and of inferior quality. Look for what’s in season in your area. For example, in many parts of the country, apples, carrots, onions, and leafy greens are good bets right now. Find the USDA’s guidance on seasonal produce here.
In order to stay safe at the grocery store, experts recommend following these tips
- Bring a Shopping List: Avoid browsing, spending too much time in the store, and touching unnecessary things by making a list of the food you are going to buy.
- Keep Distance from Shoppers: Try to keep six feet of distance from other shoppers. Shopping at off-peak hours or shopping at a grocery store that limits the number of shoppers may make social distancing easier.
- Keep Distance from Workers: Grocery store employees are at greater risk than shoppers, as they encounter dozens or hundreds of customers per day. Remember to social distance from cashiers, those stocking shelves, and everyone else working to keep your grocery store operational.
- Follow CDC Guidance: In order to stay safe, the CDC recommends that people wear a mask, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands often. Above all, stay home if you have symptoms of Covid-19 or if you’re a high-risk individual.
- Doorstep Delivery: Request for the grocery items to be dropped off outside your home to avoid a direct hand-off.
- Tip Online: Try to tip the delivery service online or via an app to avoid direct contact or direct cash/card transfers.
- Ask a Farmer: In areas where grocery delivery is not available, or is stretched to capacity, consider diversifying your procurement channels. In some areas, local farmers and producers may be offering direct purchasing options.
Should I handle foods differently once I get them home?
Although it is possible for a person to contract coronavirus from touching an infected surface or object and then touching their face, this is not the main source of infection, and there is currently no evidence that supports the idea that the virus can be spread through food or food packaging. Therefore, experts have not specifically recommended chemically disinfecting all your groceries after bringing them home. It is more important to wash your hands before and after handling your groceries, and wipe down your countertops. Most coronavirus infections originate with the respiratory system, not the digestive system, so food itself is not a principal concern, according to the infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzke. In fact, experts caution against washing fresh fruits and vegetables with soap and water as it can lead to ingesting soap residue, resulting in sickness. It is better to rinse your produce with only cold water. Furthermore, freezing your foods will not kill the coronavirus and simply help the virus survive longer. If you’re concerned about any particular items, then throw away the packaging, remove the food, and wash your hands.
For further best practices when preparing and handling food, follow the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) four food safety steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
Are there particular foods I should avoid purchasing, like foods imported from certain countries?
The good news is that, at the time of publication, the FDA reports “no evidence to support transmission of Covid-19 associated with imported goods and there are no reported cases of Covid-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.” Authorities have not recommended avoiding foods from any particular countries. If you cannot avoid buying perishable foods, then it is best to default to the aforementioned four steps for food safety from the FDA: clean, separate, cook, and chill.
However, you may consider avoiding perishable imports. Russ Webster, president of Food Enterprise Solutions, an international food safety firm, told CSIS, “In general, the more perishable the food, the more complex—and thus susceptible—is its supply chain.” Shelf-stable alternatives to perishable imports are fruits, vegetables, and meats that are canned, dried, frozen, or preserved.
What food should I eat to help boost my immune system?
Although there is no way to fully prevent illness in the case of exposure to the coronavirus, there are steps you can take that may boost your body's immune system. The best fortification for a well-functioning immune system is a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and getting enough quality sleep helps safeguard your system against infection and disease. There is no “quick fix” for boosting your immune system, but nutrition is crucial for immune defense and resistance to pathogens.
Disruptions to nutritional status can impede immune response and lead to increased susceptibility to infection during nutrient deficiency. Studies suggest that five core micronutrients—vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc—play roles in maintaining immune function. The best way to get vitamins and minerals is from a well-rounded diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen are fine), legumes, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, along with healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil.
Is it okay to order delivery and takeout food?
In many areas across the country, restaurants and bars have been ordered to close to patrons, but some offer takeout and delivery options. Private companies, like Uber Eats, have waived delivery fees for small, independent food businesses and have modified their drop off interactions to keep their customers safe—a vital step in supporting access to food for people who can’t cook for themselves due to disability or illness. Furthermore, announced in a presidential press conference on March 17, large fast food companies are keeping their driveway and delivery services operational. Regardless of whether or not your home base is on lockdown, you should be avoiding public spaces and maintaining six feet between you and anyone not in your household while picking up takeout or purchasing groceries.
Should I invite my friends or neighbors over for dinner right now?
U.S. Government Response
How will recent legislation help improve food security?
The U.S. government has passed and signed into law four different Covid-19 relief packages.
- Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 (Enacted March 3, 2020)
- Phase one allocates $8.3 million to health agencies and testing. Also, this legislation offers loan subsidies to small businesses.
- Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Enacted March 18, 2020)
- Phase two allows the USDA and states to have greater funding and flexibility in the implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There are four key provisions. All eligible households can apply to receive the SNAP maximum monthly benefit. In-person appointments for recertifying participants or new enrollees in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program has been waived. Work and work training requirements for SNAP have been suspended. Lastly, this act increases funding for local food banks, students who receive free or reduced-price meals, and the Senior Nutrition Program in the Administration for Community Living.
- Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or the ‘‘CARES ACT"’ (Enacted March 27, 2020)
- Phase three is a $2 trillion relief package, which includes stimulus checks, bailouts to industries, and loans and grants for businesses. In terms of meeting food needs, this legislation provides $8.8 billion for the Child Nutrition Programs, $15. 8 billion for SNAP, which includes funding for the Indian Reservation program, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, and finally, $450 million more for food banks and other community food distribution programs. These allocations will help to cover the projected increase in SNAP beneficiaries by under the Families First Coronavirus. Response Act.
- Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (Enacted April 24, 2020)
Below is a roundup of guidance from across the federal government:
- White House
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Guidance for Businesses and Employers
- Small Business Administration (SBA): Guidance for Business and Employers
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration
- SNAP State-by-State Covid-19 Waivers
- WIC State-by-State Covid-19 Waivers
- Child Nutrition Programs State-by-State Covid-19 Waivers
The Global Food Security Program would also like to thank Sydney Smith for her work and contributions to this page.