The pandemic has the power to change our relationship with food.
The National Restaurant Association estimated that the entire restaurant industry would lose more than $225 billion, layoff millions of employees and small independent restaurants would bear the biggest burden. Although the future role of these restaurants is unclear, at least 75% will not survive the pandemic according to New York City chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio.
Local food — or food from smaller, independent farms and restaurants — had been gaining in popularity and seemed to mark the start of a less centralized and more regional era. Big processed foods were slowly being replaced, a step in history to promote the “farm to table” mindset. However, in quarantine many are opting to go with faster, more efficient processed food. A choice that has disastrous effects on farmers and small restaurant owners.
The piercing issue is that during the pandemic, farmers are left without customers and sources of income that they once depended on. Despite the well-being of people who try to mimic the “farm to table” system in their businesses, the pandemic has done well to highlight how such a system has been unable to withstand the tsunami of economic declines and shuttered restaurants.
More importantly, it has exposed the volume and variety of crops not grown to support the average stay-at-home consumer. Clearly, the direct link between “farm” and “table” left little other options for independent farmers to turn to once schools, restaurants and businesses closed.
Zaid Kurdieh, who runs Norwich Meadows Farm, southeast of Syracuse told the New York Times that 60% of his produce goes to restaurants.
“My pessimistic view is that this is going to change the behaviors of everybody in terms of how they dine out and how they buy food,” he said in the interview. “People are not going to buy a $300 plate of food, and that trickles down to us.”
Instead, many farmers are turning to online shipments or produce boxes while others send what they can to relief kitchens or clamber to sell at the few remaining open-farmers markets. In extreme cases, to deal with the excess products some dairy farms in Idaho were reported to have dumped thousands of gallons of milk each day.
“What we need to do is design a whole new regional food system that can withstand these shocks and others that will come along. And that could be very exciting,” Dan Barber, a small restaurant owner in New York, said in an interview with TIME magazine.
One idea he proposed was to process the fresh meats. It is more realistic to preserve meats or vegetables, essentially by drying thighs or making charcuterie from breasts. That way, farmers could continue to support stay-at-home cooks and manage the volume of their crops and income. However, more can always be done.
The pandemic is an excellent opportunity to step back and look at the cultural imprint that restaurants leave in our communities. A “farm-to-table” mindset allows us to be more mindful of our health and consumer practices. Supporting our local business has been a trending hashtag as well as a reminder to check on our community and its people.
Choose to contact Representatives or Senators to advocate for the importance of restaurants in your local economy. Purchase fresh foods from farmers and maintain your health during the quarantine. If you truly love that restaurant, you will support in these troubling times.