COVID-19 has created concerns regarding our food supply. Over the past couple months, agricultural producers and consumers alike have asked Michigan State University Extension specialists what will happen during the 2020 growing season.
The honest answer? “We don’t know,” say MSU experts with experience limited primarily to fresh fruit, vegetables and local market sales. Even though they can’t predict the future, here are their collective thoughts for the 2020 growing season.
There will be less travel this summer
International and domestic long-distance travel will be reduced the next six months or more, either by government action or voluntarily by safety-conscious consumers. Consumers will still travel, but they will be traveling locally. Day or weekend trips will most likely be the trend.
A priority on ‘buy local’
A visit to a roadside market or farmers market will be part of many consumers’ short trips. It will be viewed as an event they can do relatively safely since many festivals and concerts where there will be large gatherings have already been cancelled.
Some growers are offering pre-order and pickup from farm stands and farmers markets to further ease customer concerns. Producers selling locally and directly to consumers may see demand increase, while those marketing through brokers may see less or similar demand as previous years. Expect to see an increase interest and enrollment in Community Supported Agriculture. Those interested in CSAs can find a CSA near you.
Greater unemployment and less consumer buying power
The speed at which the economy will recover is uncertain, but there is a good chance a significant portion of the workforce will be unemployed through the summer and fall months. Unemployed consumers will be looking for good ways to increase their food dollar buying power. Buying local and seasonal items could be part of their money saving strategy.
Food pantries have already seen an increase in demand, which will continue for some time. Many producers are sending excess produce to these pantries and participate in the federally funded program to grow specifically for food pantries.
Increased interest in u-pick
U-pick began with farmers offering an outing to city dwellers or farmers allowing gleaners to harvest crops missed or intentionally left during the regular harvest. The former looking for entertainment and the latter looking for inexpensive food. Either case fits well into the COVID-19 situation.
If you are a frequent customer at u-pick operations, expect a more structured activity to ensure your food and you are safe.
Renewed interest in home food preservation
There are many reasons home food preserving is gaining in popularity. Some preserve food to save money, for food security or to have more control over ingredients and production practices. Whatever the reason, it is important to follow research-based, tested and food safe recipes and processes.
MSU Extension has developed an Online Food Preservation Course that instructs viewers on research-based methods for safely freezing, canning and drying foods at home. This low-cost online course is designed to increase knowledge and confidence in water bath and pressure canning, freezing, pickling and dehydrating techniques.
Fewer dollars spent on dining out
An abrupt, extreme shift in food service occurred when dine-in restaurants, schools and universities closed. The average consumer probably does not grasp the enormity of this change. Since 2010, over half of the family food budget has gone to eating outside the home with the average person eating out four to five times a week.
To have this sudden shift placed a tremendous burden on the established supply chain. What will happen as restrictions are lifted is hard to predict. There could be a big demand on restaurants as consumers strive to return to a more normal life. However, there will still be some amount of social distancing at least for the near future.
This will mean fewer tables and many eat-in restaurants may not open until they can have full operation. The restaurant business relies on volume and quick turnover to make a profit and to operate below full capacity may not be possible for some.
The food service industry is also a big user of fresh product, especially vegetables. Depending on how quickly consumers return to restaurants, we may see a decrease in fresh fruit and vegetable demand and an increase in prepared or pre-packaged fruits and vegetables.
Social distancing in confined areas may be in place for an extended period for identified high-risk groups, whether it’s self- or government-imposed. Those 65 and older and those with complicating health issues represent a significant amount of population and a significant amount of buying power.
Many of these points are interrelated. How consumer’s food purchasing and eating habits temporarily or permanently change will be interesting and important to observe.