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Facing food insecurity, short- and long-term changes necessary

Or, Farmer Brown won’t be only one to have a cow when Americans go hungry

Lowcountry cattleman Dr. David Baird

Image: Dr. David Baird, raising cattle right here in the Lowcountry. [Mercury Archives]

According to numerous reliable sources, right here in the United States, hundreds of thousands of tons of produce are rotting in the fields. Milk is being poured into the ground. Hatcheries are smashing eggs. Cattle and pigs may soon be euthanized rather than become steak and sausage. Agricultural producers are concerned the prices for their goods are so low, they will lose money trying to get them to market.

Yet in the midst of our current crisis, when many citizens are rightfully worried about how to keep food on the dinner table, the situation is not just troubling, but shameful, immoral, even. It is outrageous, and must stop — destroying food that fellow citizens need.

We would love to say “let the government back off and let well-meaning and creative farmers and charities find a solution.” And, in places, that’s working. Thousands of food banks are still providing meals to an increasingly-needy population. But these charities were never meant to be the frontline of food distribution during a time such as this. The country’s largest food bank network, Feeding America, is currently projecting a shortfall greater than a billion-and-a-half dollars over the next six months.

Too many citizens suffered from food insecurity before the coronavirus crisis; now millions more have joined their ranks. And almost all of us are tied into a system that is far more precarious than needs be, as these difficult times illustrate. Thus, there is no better time than now to “plant the seeds” of long-term change and work quickly towards short-term stabilization.

The Federal government gives big agribusiness a seat at the table for any legislation that involves food policy. Decades of such a deplorable situation have robbed us of our family farms, needlessly stretched our food supply lines and given us the topsy-turvy world where people starve while food is destroyed.

In the short term, the power of the purse must be used to keep crops harvested and food moving via the distribution channels already in place. Some states — Louisiana and Washington, for example, have already called up the National Guard to distribute food. Such programs could be expanded. Money and manpower should also go to processing federal SNAP applications, currently at a backlog. Those who harvest and process our food, long among the most overlooked in our society, need enhanced health and safety protections to keeps fields productive and processors working.

Yet these must be viewed as short-term solutions at best. Americans will face food insecurity for as long as we fail to know their farmers. Few areas of life in this nation suffer so much due to the gap between citizen’s perception — the little red barn we teach our toddlers about — and the realities of the industry.

In the long term, Charleston could stand to be a national leader in food security — we still have many local sources of food, thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, important institutions like GrowFood Carolina that connect farmers and their customers, locavore restaurateurs … and many homes where someone knows how to put whatever food materials are available on a dinner plate, in tasty fashion.

First, we must support CSAs. Like any business, farmers depend on steady sales — the kind usually provided by restaurants more so than home consumers. When restaurants have to stop their orders, the farms that supply them are forced to find ways to get product straight to consumers … or they’re reduced to the more drastic measures mentioned above. CSAs connect farms and homes efficiently and ensure a dependable supply of food for the consumer.

We also have an abundance of thoughtful and generous citizens. We recently saw that musician, philanthropist and community leader Darius Rucker donated $50,000 to the Lowcountry Food Bank and issued a giving challenge. Many more folks can and should give as they can.

Wise zoning and adequate conservation easement programs must combine to protect our area farms for the long-term. Think about it: If a widespread food shortage strikes, which would you rather have sprawled across John’s Island … thousands of acres of agricultural productivity or treeless stretches of tract homes?

Another long-term consideration: People must be educated about their food. Americans need to see just what giant factory farms and processors are like — then start to make better decisions accordingly. Families and school children need to partake in agritourism. Home Economics needs to return to the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, all those who can need to get their hands dirty and get some planting done. Think back to the Victory Gardens of the Second World War. By 1944, Americans were producing enough fruit and veg in their own backyards to equal the entirety of commercial production.

Despite the disconcerting statements of a recent billionaire presidential candidate, we know for certain: Our farmers are among the most intelligent and ingenious part of our citizenry. They’ve always done more with less, all while dependent on forces they’ve no control over — from the weather to technology to changing consumer tastes.

With this American ingenuity and work ethic — backed by government money and intelligent action — we can bridge the food gap today and enact smart policies for the future. Perhaps the hardest part will be convincing politicians to allocate money to a project that won’t buy them re-election votes. Will a hastily planned rescue of this sort be at times disorganized? Yes — as was the evacuation of Dunkirk. But a decent plan executed immediately is far better than a perfect plan executed too late. Let’s save lives today and craft a stronger, healthier “new normal” for times to come.

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