September 28, 2021

Coronavirus makes hash of food systems, but generosity and creativity prevail in pandemic

Todd R. McAdam/file photo

Matt DeHart of Anderson’s Market on Route 281 takes inventory of his produce in May. Anderson’s stocks its stores using smaller, regional food processors in an industry model that food experts say can avoid disruptions caused when a pandemic such as COVID-19 interrupts production at large, centralized food processors.

COVID-disrupted supply chains. Shutdown food processors. Increased hunger. Surpluses and shortages — often of the same food commodities.

Combine a pandemic, a recession and a centralized and industrial food system and what do you get?

Hash.

But even as the coronavirus pandemic turned the weekly trek for groceries into an epic quest — for people who could both find groceries and afford them — 2020 saw innovations and generosity combine to keep the greater Cortland area fed, and perhaps create a recipe for future growth in the area’s food production industry.

DISRUPTION AND REPAIR

Nearly 170 food-processing facilities across the nation saw coronavirus run down their workers, killing at least 45. Many facilities shut down for days or weeks, creating shortages of food through the spring.

That came as consumers stockpiled food as they stayed home and cooked. The food service industry — restaurants and schools — saw drastic reductions. Schools closed, although some still delivered meals and many restaurants either closed or operated at reduced capacity.

As large stores with a national supply chains rationed what product they had, shoppers turned to other suppliers — smaller, local supply chains.

“The demand is really high,” said Matt DeHart, owner of Anderson’s Farm Market in Homer, in May. “Going forward, there’s going to be some supply issues. Even the local packers that we buy from, they’re having difficulty.”

Farmers in the greater Cortland area had food — beef, poultry, pork and more — the question was getting it to customers. Only one butcher in the greater Cortland area, Owasco Meats of Moravia, had U.S. Department of Agriculture certification to sell retail meats. USDA regulations can be cumbersome and expensive for small meat processors.

Still, people sought local foods, and that search bolstered Cortland County food producers, said beef farmer Caleb Bean of Bean’s SunnyBrook Farm in Cortlandville, earlier this week, even as sales leveled off over the year.

“There’s not the panic buying we saw in the spring,” said his father, Russ Bean.

The disruption brought attention to the PRIME Act — Senate bill S.1620 and House bill HR.2859. The bill would allow meat processors who meet applicable state laws to cut meats for specific customers, such as people who buy a share of a pig or cattle directly from the farmer, without USDA certification. That, in turn, would free capacity as USDA-certified butchers to process more meat for retail sale.

SURPLUS AND SHORTAGE

The economy shut down in March to slow the spread of the virus, even as the nation slid into a recession, it led to simultaneous surpluses and shortages of a food commodity critical to the greater Cortland area: milk.

With restaurants and schools closed, production lines that put milk in 5-gallon tubs and 8-ounce cartons, plus similar packaging of other dairy products, had massive surpluses. At the same time, as people stayed home and bought half-gallon and gallon jugs, retailers faced shortages.

Until the production lines could be retooled to new containers, dairy farmers had to face the pain. They were ordered to dump their milk.

“It’s crying time,” said Stewart Young of East River Dairy in Homer in April, as he watched thousands of gallons of fresh milk pour into his manure pit. “It’s a shame I would have to do that.”

Some farmers would have none of it.

Members of the Dairy Farmers of America found that Cornell University’s agriculture school had a milk-processing facility. Rather than dump the milk, Cornell processed it and the farmers gave it away tens of thousands of gallons.

HUNGER AND HELP

Unemployment in Cortland County spiked to 14.1% in April and remained in double-digits through July. Even with a $600 stimulus check and extended unemployment benefits, putting food on the table could get difficult.

Hunger — measured by the amount of food sent to Cortland County food pantries — tripled or more. The Food Bank of Central New York saw a 186% increase in the food it sent to Cortland County between March 1 to Sept. 30. In 2020, the food bank distributed 823,325 pounds of food. In 2019, it distributed 287,875 pounds.

Other efforts stepped up — large and small.

  • Cornell University contributed 37 tons of food, 22 tons of it from its fields, to help feed hungry people.
  • The Seven Valleys Hunger Coalition got $250,000 in grants to find ways to store food until it could be distributed.
  • The coalition also gathered 30 volunteers to gleen the last of the blueberry harvest from Hall’s Hill Blueberry Farm in Cortlandville.
  • A series of food distributions were organized across New York, funded in part by the $25 million Nourish New York initiative. Each gave away thousands of gallons of milk, plus at least 16,000 pounds of fresh produce. Some gave away thousands of pounds of fresh meat. Several were organized by the American Dairy Association North East, which worked with milk processors Dairy Farmers of America and Upstate Niagara Cooperative and community groups. Many of them drew 1,500 or more people, lined up in their cars.
  • Several churches established or reopened food pantries, as the pandemic shut down some facilities and disrupted supplies to others.
  • The United Way’s Day of Caring dedicated its work in September to gathering food and other supplies for distribution.
  • Rahmon Daily, 11, Patrick White, 9, and Caleb White, 6, went around their Lamont Circle neighborhood in Cortlandville asking neighbors around Halloween weekend to donate food. They collected more than 50 items.
  • Cortland High School junior Alex Shaffer established a food bank at the high school, and when schools went to remoteonly learning, transferred it to her front yard, giving away bags of oatmeal, noodles and drinks.
  • Schools, which had been distributing food daily through the school year, continued daily distributions through the summer.
  • Mutual Aid of Cortland County set up four kiosks, giving away food and other items, around the county, mirroring a similar effort by Mutual Aid of Tompkins County.