Empower culpeper carts (copy)

Jill Skelton (center), food manager for Empowering Culpeper, directs volunteers as they bring food to a recipient of the food program in late March, held at Culpeper United Methodist Church.

Somehow, some way, coronavirus pandemic or not, people have to eat. Aside from news about the heavy toll COVID-19 continues to take and the outbreak’s across-the-board economic impact, the challenges facing the food industry and in making sure people get fed are atop the life-goes-on priority list.

Perhaps the first point to make is that hunger exists every day in the United States during normal times. A lesson we can take from the circumstances we now face is to ensure our concern that all Americans have enough to eat remains as intense once we’ve put the pandemic behind us.

As the crisis continues, our concern is focused on the homeless and disadvantaged who struggle day to day to supply food for themselves and their families. As unemployment soars, the need for accessible food is rising right along with it. Food banks and pantries not only have more customers, they are less able to replenish their shelves as some foods become more difficult to get and donations of food and money are reduced.

For most people, putting together a meal is as easy as opening the refrigerator or stepping out to their restaurant of choice. Now, even stocking the refrigerator requires a decision-making process. And with restaurants that are still open limited to takeout or delivery, consumers must trust that thorough precautions have been taken in their food’s preparation and handling.

But these days nothing is routine. Consumers are merely the last link in a food-supply chain that is a remarkably dependable, life-sustaining miracle even in the best of times. Things can and do go wrong as food travels from the farm to the processing plant, to the wholesale distributor, and to the retail outlet or restaurant.

Today there are existential challenges for every link in that chain as the industry adjusts to new ways of doing business with millions of individual livelihoods at stake.

Will closed restaurants come back? What are their owners and workers to do in the interim?

When major slaughterhouses and meat processing plants are forced to shut down due to outbreaks of cases among workers, what are ranchers and livestock farmers to do with their product? As dwindling supplies are unable to meet demand, and prices inevitably go up, how do families stretch budgets that are simultaneously shrinking?

What we are finding is that all along the food supply chain, Americans’ will to survive is producing ample supplies of ingenuity and perseverance. Some ideas will make it; others will not. Just searching for an island of optimism in a sea of pessimism presents a daunting challenge.

At times we see ongoing problems addressed with seemingly simple—and perfect—solutions. In New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sees dairy farmers dumping milk in rural areas of the state, while children in urban areas go hungry. So the governor announces an initiative to pay the farmers for their milk with available state funds so the milk can be shipped to wherever it’s needed.

Such situations make it obvious that when there’s an out-of-the-ordinary surplus, the food must not be getting to where it is desperately needed. For the same reason, school officials and volunteers are working to make sure kids whose best meals are at school are not forgotten when there is no school.

Area churches and community organizations are working together, and harder than ever, to provide food to those who need it most.

Free Lance–Star reporter Adele Uphaus–Conner recently interviewed an Orange County farmer who found himself with 900 pounds of unsold pork products when the restaurants he supplies shut down. So he opened an online store, sold the meat, and thinks he’s found his path to survival—not to mention a possible marketing tool for the future.

Once we get past this pandemic, we owe it to ourselves to look hard at the challenges we faced. What can we learn from those we met successfully? What must we improve to address the failures?

What we learn during the tough times, about the food supply and keeping people fed, can resonate during the good times, when we tend to forget those who continue to suffer.

That should be one of the silver linings we’re hoping for.

The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

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