We disinfect our groceries. We don’t always have the staple foods we’ve come to count on in the fridge. At the time this article was written, headlines about closing poultry and pork plants share space with stories about the tensions and dangers farmworkers face in America’s fields. This all comes on the heels of billions of dollars of government bailouts for farms across the country, who were already hit hard by trade wars.
While we wait to see whether there will be any substantial food shortages in the time of COVID-19, some Huskies are on the frontlines, ensuring people in our communities will not go hungry.
Marcy, ’97, and Chris Prchal own Trogg’s Hollow Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Market Farm in Poplar Grove, Illinois, serving the Rockford and Chicagoland areas. The farm grows a large variety of produce that varies depending on the season and raises a small number of animals for meat and eggs. The farm’s CSA works like a subscription service, with shareholders receiving weekly or bi-weekly deliveries, and most of its produce goes to those customers. Another portion goes to farmers’ markets, and the rest is sold at the family’s farm stand.
“The biggest impact we have felt so far has been on delivery locations and farmers’ markets,” Marcy said. “We rely on places that act as drop sites for multiple shares every week—both public businesses and private homes. With the current situation, we are having to deliver to individuals’ residences to keep people away from public places, and this makes our delivery schedule more complicated.”
Trogg’s Hollow is delivering to more places than normal, which takes significantly more time. In addition, the farm has had monthly indoor farmers’ markets and multiple spring events canceled, missing valuable face-to-face times with buyers.
Otherwise, from a farming aspect, the Prchals are continuing with business as usual on the farm. They are very focused on seeding and planting and are increasing their seeding amounts in anticipation of greater demand in the coming season.
“We are already seeing a greater demand for local food, as people begin to turn to small, local businesses and are shying away from large public grocery stores. We have had a number of new people interested in our CSA program in the last few weeks,” Marcy said.
The business is also currently in the process of setting up an online store where people will be able to order and pick up products from many local producers all in one place.
“We’re hoping to make it easier for people to access safe, local products, while also helping out our fellow producers,” Marcy said.
While larger farm operations will have to contend with possible labor shortages and health and safety questions during this summer and harvest season, Prchal isn’t seeing any change yet.
“All the farmers we know are working hard right now to prepare for a busy summer,” she said. “I also see the local conventional bean and corn farmers out there working. I think we’re all anticipating a busy season this year, and we’re hopeful that careful planning will provide an abundance of local products.”
Still, food insecurity remains for many in our communities, even in the best of times. In the dangerous days of COVID-19 and the social distancing it requires, many nonprofit foodservice organizations are struggling to meet the increasing need with fewer resources and hands.
Dan Kenney, ’78, is the founder and executive director of DeKalb County Community Gardens (DCCG) in DeKalb, Illinois. Although he is not a farmer, he has been involved in the study and work of developing a sustainable local food system for the past decade.
In the past eight years, DCCG has established over 58 community garden locations across DeKalb County, including the NIU Communiversity Garden. For the last three years, DCCG’s Grow Mobile program has been a traveling health oasis—a 14-foot refrigerated truck that distributes food in urban and rural food desert areas of DeKalb county. The gardens and Grow Mobile have combined to enable DCCG to distribute over 500,000 pounds of food to the 17% of DeKalb County’s population that regularly struggles with food insecurity.
But this was before COVID-19 took root, and after weeks of layoffs and restaurant closures, Kenney said DeKalb County has never seen such a sudden and dramatic increase in the need for food.
In the first three weeks of the governor’s “shelter in place” order, the DCCG held 10 pop-up locations in and around DeKalb County. More than 20,000 pounds of food were delivered to more than 750 households and more than 2,200 individuals. These deliveries were for the elderly, those struggling with a mental illness, disabilities, and medical conditions, as well as a family of an individual who was diagnosed with coronavirus.
At the time this article was written, more than 500,000 people are newly unemployed in Illinois, and Kenney said that approximately 70% of those coming to pick up food from the mobile pantries are individuals who have never used a food pantry before this pandemic shut down.
“At the same time crops are rotting in Florida fields, milk is being dumped, and greens are being plowed under in California. These are crops grown for now-shuttered restaurants, hotels and theme parks,” Kenney wrote in a recent op-ed for the DeKalb Chronicle. “Growers can’t switch to selling to grocery chains because the major grocers are under contract to bring in their produce from outside the United States. This is another example of dependence upon food, which travels an average 1,500 miles before it reaches your table.”
“The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how those who struggle with food security are dependent at the bottom of a fragile food chain. Those who survive on what’s leftover have even less to choose from when there is little left behind,” he said.
Kay Nohelty, ’17, a graduate student who oversees the Huskie Food Pantry, said that while most students have left the campus, there are still some who depend on pantry services. With fewer volunteers and safety concerns about the small location, the pantry has had to adjust how it serves those needs.
“Currently, the pantry is not operating normally,” Nohelty said. “We have closed the physical location of the pantry. Instead, we have emergency to-go bags available for students and have set up free dining hall access for students to get grab-and-go meals for lunches and dinners at the Campus Life Building.”
For now, local resources are working to close the gaps in the DeKalb food system, but Kenney says a longer-term solution is needed, as Americans must wait for food to cross oceans before it can be sold in our major grocery chains.