Looking Back at COVID-19’s Impact on the Food System

We can learn lessons about food sustainability by looking back at what happened during COVID-19 to grow a more resilient food system.

COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s life and our way of functioning—especially the food system. One day we were going about our everyday lives, going to work, shopping as we pleased, eating out more than ever; then the virus began to rapidly spread and our lives were completely changed—including the way we eat. Suddenly many of lost our jobs, and we had to wait in lines to enter grocery stores, where we found limited availability of foods. We were even banned from eating at our favorite restaurants. Food shortages afflicted the nation and the world as social distancing practices impacted distribution and packaging facilities. This meant fewer workers moving food along the normal chain of distribution, as well as more and more people losing jobs and relying on food banks, which couldn’t keep up with the demand to feed people. Finally, COVID-19’s impact struck farmers, the very foundation of the food system. Farmers had to make difficult decisions to either continue in doubtful, uncertain times, or to take a break from farming, leaving fewer farmers producing food for the world.

A small local farm in Ojai, California opened up for direct to consumer purchasing during COVID shutdowns.

Impact on Farmers

Once countries began to lock down to reduce the spread of the virus via traveling, many immigrant farm workers were unable to cross the border to work, leaving many farmers struggling to meet each day’s work demand to continue producing, harvesting, and caring for crops. 

When large institutions shut down, such as schools, businesses, college campuses, and restaurants, farmers were unable to repackage and distribute food products made for these institutions. Unfortunately, certain processing facilities were designed specifically to produce bulk commodity products that were not allowed to be sold in grocery stores due to USDA and FDA laws. With packaging facilities unable to pivot, commodities were being dumped, costing farmers money, time, and effort. 

Many farmers were losing money, exacerbating the low-income plight farmers already face, and causing some farms to shut down. Although some farmers held on to the hope of producing enough profit from the next coming harvest, debating how much of a crop to plant the next season was troubling due to the unseen demand during the unprecedented pandemic. It was estimated that U.S farmers lost $20 billion in net income for 2020.

Buying from the Ojai farmers market during shutdown, which was able to provide the community with healthy food.

Not every farmer was in trouble due to the pandemic. Small family farms that depended on family labor were able to pivot quicker to meet the demand of consumers. Small farms saw an increased demand for community supported agriculture (CSA) memberships and livestock products, since many individuals did not want to shop at a grocery store and wanted to support the local economy. Also, these small farmers in some locations were able to continue selling at farmers markets, while larger farms that worked strictly with a distributor or packager could not do.

Sign for COVID safety at the Ojai farmers market.

Sustainability of Farms

The ability of small, diverse farms, practicing both conventional and organic farming techniques, to survive through these difficult times inspired people to think of a food system built on sustainable principles. COVID-19 highlighted how unsustainable the practice of monocropping is for resiliency. Monocropping prevents large farms from pivoting in difficult situations, and it also depletes the soil of nutrients, and requires increased use of pesticides. Practicing this method of farming over the years since the 1970s has shown scientists that soils are nutrient depleted and pesticide exposure is negatively affecting farm workers. Also, this type of farming has been known to release greenhouse gases, deplete non-renewable resources, and damage ecological systems for the current and future generations to come.

Signs of hope at a local grocery store in Ojai.

Resilient Food Solutions

COVID-19 has magnified the unsustainability of the current food system, leading some individuals, organizations, and grass root movements to advocate for a more resilient food system that will help provide food security to ensure adequate resources for crop and livestock production, now and into the future. This framework could put more control in the farmer’s hands, which could help prevent farmers from going bankrupt in desperate times and being able to adapt faster to the everchanging situation. Also, policies that support small, medium, and large farmers in crisis could reduce the number of farms closing and the loss of farmers we depend on for growing our food.    

To reduce the financial stress put on small and medium sized farms, one solution is developing regional alliances composed of farmers, wholesalers, and customers. This would enable the wholesalers and customers to build strategic relationships with farmers and emphasize the value associated with putting back relationships in food production rather than commodity fetishism occurring. This would also help farmers estimate product demand based on their customers instead of an ever-changing global market. 

On a smaller scale, here are some simple ways consumers can play the important role of supporting smaller farms:

  • Build relationships with local farms
  • Consume local, seasonal produce
  • Purchase CSA memberships
  • Shop local farmers markets

Call to Action

As the world and nation moves forward working to recover from the impact of COVID-19, let’s use this as an opportunity to reflect and change the food system. Without changing the food system to a more sustainable one that benefits all members throughout the system, we will all be negatively impacted both now, and in the future.

Written by Michelle Naragon, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Photos by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Learn more about sustainable food systems:

Special Delivery: CSAs
The Myriad Benefits of Community Gardens
Make the Most of Your Farmers Market


Anderson, N.  (2020).  Farmers Estimated to Lose Billions in 2020.  Columbia Daily Tribune.  https://www.columbiatribune.com/news/20200414/farmers-estimated-to-lose-billions-in-2020

Holden, N., White, E., Lange, M., & Oldfield, T.  (2018).  Review of the Sustainability of Food Systems and Transition Using the Internet of Food.  Science of Food.  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41538-018-0027-3

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