The unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic will soon exceed that of the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 and represents the worst decline in jobs since the Great Depression in the 1930s.1 It is difficult to overstate how many jobs have been lost — each Labor Department report adds to the grim statistics.
In two short months, the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes travel, tourism, lodging and recreation, shed almost half its jobs.2 Most of the lost jobs were related to eating and drinking establishments, work that depends on disposable income and the ability of people to move around freely.3
Bureau of Labor Statistics data, cited by Charles Gascon, regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggest that more than 66.7 million people working in food preparation, sales, production and services are now at high risk of layoffs.4
Conventional food production and delivery have been severely disrupted, but what about natural foods? I am a founding member of an exciting plan to keep organic farmers and natural product businesses up and running during this difficult time.
Are We Facing a Second Great Depression?
During the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in recent times, unemployment peaked at 10% in October 2009.5 During the Great Depression of the 1930s, that figure was 24.9%, which included people in work relief jobs.6 When you compare those figures with estimates of unemployment rates that may come from the COVID-19 pandemic that are between 10.5% and 40.6%, you see how serious this is.7
Many of us did not live through the Great Depression, but we have seen pictures of the devastating poverty and heard stories from our older relatives. People lacked both food and money, and bread lines and soup kitchens were how many survived. According to U.S. History.com, the food offerings began as charity operations:8
“When soup kitchens first appeared, they were run by churches or private charities. The Capuchin Services Center in southeast Detroit, for example, served 1,500 to 3,000 people a day. That center opened on November 2, 1929.
Volunteers of America also was important in setting up soup kitchens all over America. By the mid-1930s, state and federal governments also were operating them.”
Today, charities are still feeding the growing number of hungry people. A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. food banks were swamped. At an Omaha food pantry that before the pandemic normally served 100 people a day, 900 people a day show up now.9 In Las Vegas, the Three Square Food Bank, which anticipated 200 to 250 cars a day through the pandemic, is getting up to a 4-mile-long caravan of 500 to 600 cars, according to The New York Times.10
Today’s pandemic food shortages also have parallels to World War II. During the war, the cost of munitions and war-related items caused the producer price index to rise by 17% and consumer price index by 10%, which raised the price of everyday staples.11 This led to passage of the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942, which authorized the U.S. government to ration food and set prices.12
In addition to stabilizing prices, the Emergency Price Control Act was meant to prevent hoarding and price gouging and ensure that scarce resources could reach everyone evenly.13 Among the rationed items that Americans could buy only with coupon books were sugar, coffee, processed foods, meats, fats, canned fish, cheese and canned milk.14
Flash forward to today’s pandemic and food is again being rationed, as well as paper products and hand sanitizers.15 Store shelves are sometimes bare and people wait in long lines outside of grocery stores. During World War II, there were few fast food restaurants and people usually ate at home. During this pandemic, while many fast food restaurants are seeing long lines, home cooked meals are again becoming the norm, creating more demand for dry good items like pasta.
Big Food’s Business Models Have Made Things Worse
Big Food’s large dairies, packing plants and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are struggling during the pandemic as consumer demand wanes and their nonregenerative business models abysmally fail. Milk is being dumped and edible livestock euthanized even as people are struggling with hunger and food insecurity.16 It is a thorough indictment of conventional agriculture.
According to Tim Gibbons, communications director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, COVID-19 is “shining a spotlight on the rigidity and lack of resilience for the corporate model of [farm production], which does not pay farmers fairly and is not good for consumers.”17
It is ironic that despite the many systems’ failures and even as Americans lose their livelihoods and face poverty, food insecurity and mental health crises, financial markets continue to rally. Ill-conceived government policies have clearly created a bubble that will crash in the future.
Conventional, nonregenerative farming is responsible for virtually every major environmental and health problem we now have, including:
Food insecurity and malnutrition amid mounting food waste
Promotion of foodborne illnesses and drug-resistant bacterial infections
Rising obesity and chronic disease rates despite growing health care outlays
Rapidly dwindling fresh water supplies
Toxic agricultural chemicals polluting air, soil and waterways, thereby threatening the entire food chain from top to bottom
Disruption of normal climate and rainfall patterns due to the destruction of ecosystems by pollution
Job Losses Worsen Poor Countries’ Plights
In poor countries, COVID-19 presents even more dire consequences. People are not just at risk of illness and death with weak health care systems to treat them; they are also losing jobs because of the slowdown in Western countries’ economies and less demand for the goods they manufacture and export.
A half-billion people who were not living this way before the pandemic may be catapulted into poverty, says Oxfam, a conglomerate of 19 organizations working to end global poverty.18 That is a 6% to 8% rise in poverty for the entire global population. According to Oxfam:19
“Existing inequalities dictate the economic impact of this crisis. The poorest workers in rich and poor nations are less likely to be in formal employment, enjoy labor protections such as sick pay, or be able to work from home.
Globally, just one out of every five unemployed people have access to unemployment benefits. Two billion people work in the informal sector with no access to sick pay — the majority in poor countries where 90 percent of jobs are informal compared to just 18 percent in rich nations.”
In Bangladesh, more than 1 million garment workers, most of whom are women, have been laid off without pay because of cancellations of orders from Western clothing brands.20
In Africa, it is estimated that as many as half of all jobs could disappear. A taxi driver and father told Oxfam he had not had passengers since the lockdown closed the airport and restaurants, and added “This virus will starve us before it makes us sick.”21
In India, as many as half a million people who had been working outside their cities of origin literally walked back home after their jobs disappeared with the COVID-19 pandemic.22 Amitabh Behar, chief executive of Oxfam India, called the exodus the “largest mass migration since independence.”23
In Delhi, throngs of displaced workers coalesce at food lines set up by the government to feed them, but the amount of food is not always sufficient. “Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us,” said Nihal Singh, a migrant worker hoping to be fed at one of the food lines,24 echoing the sentiments of the African taxi driver who spoke to Oxfam. Clearly, famine is following on the footsteps of COVID-19.
The clustered food distribution in India and elsewhere also increases the risk of COVID-19 infections spreading, since the crowding and desperation of hungry people makes social distancing nearly impossible.
Introducing ‘The Nourish Mint’ — A New Way Forward
Even though natural products have rarely been in greater demand from consumers, COVID-19 has prevented natural products’ industry conferences that were normally scheduled from occurring. Such meetings, like the Natural Products Expo West, usually held the first week of March, facilitate connections and allow raw ingredient companies to pitch to brands, and brands, in turn, to pitch to independent retailers. Until now.
Luckily there is some good news when it comes to keeping the supply chain of natural foods and supplements flowing amid the temporary shutdown of such natural products’ industry conferences.
The Organic & Natural Health Association has created a new way for farmers and natural product businesses to interface called “The Nourish Mint.”25 The online events, the first to take place June 18 and 25, 2020, at 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, will allow:26
“… brands, raw ingredient suppliers, distributors and independent retailers of SENPA, INFRA [Independent Natural Food Retailers Association], Positively Natural and MAHO [Mid-American Health Organization] to network and exchange new innovations and opportunities …
‘Retailers are very interested in knowing not just about the product, but what goes into the product, where those ingredients come from and how they ultimately help the person buying it,’ said Debra Short, executive director of SENPA. ‘The Nourish Mint’ is a great opportunity for them to do that while we wait for industry conferences to resume.”
How does The Nourish Mint work? It will operate just like an in-person event in which raw ingredient companies and brands can present their products to an audience of independent retailers and other interested companies in the industry — except that it will be online. The presenters will have three minutes to showcase their products and three minutes to answer questions from the virtual audience.27
Flexibility is built into The Nourish Mint sessions. After the formal, live presentations of ingredients, products and brands, there will be an open social with attendees. Members of the audience will also be able to schedule individual or private meetings with the presenting companies for a future date.
The Nourish Mint format is unique because it involves the entire supply chain, says Karen Howard, the CEO and executive director of Organic & Natural Health Association.28
How to Participate in a Nourish Mint Event
Companies that are interested in presenting at a Nourish Mint event can apply by sending pitch materials to [email protected], on or before June 2, 2020. For members of Organic & Natural Health Association, the cost to present to prospective buyers is $300 and for non-members, it’s $500. Only 20 companies will be chosen to present at the June 18 and 25 sessions.29 Among the industry expert audience, who are called “mintors,” will be:30
Heather Granato, VP of content, Informa
Alan Lewis, VP government affairs, Natural Grocers
Andrew Halpner, VP science and technical services, Atrium Innovations
Greg Horn, co-founder of Nutritional Capital Network; director at William Hood and Co.
Debra Short, executive director, SENPA
Kantha Shelke, principle of Corvus Blue
Anthony Zolezzi, chairman and co-founder UxHealth
Corinne Shindelar, president emeritus, founder and former CEO INFRA
Independent retailers who are members in good standing of SENPA, INFRA, Positively Natural and MAHO and Organic & Natural Health Association members may attend for free. Non-members may attend for $150 per session, and tickets can be acquired from the Organic & Natural Health Association.31
During the Pandemic Consider Growing Your Own Food
Growing your own vegetables and fruits is one of the best ways to ensure ready access to fresh, nutrient-dense and chemical-free food. It especially makes sense during this pandemic with its economic and food disruptions.
It is not true that you need a large space to grow a meaningful amount of food, though it is a popular misconception. In reality, “The Backyard Homestead” suggests you can grow enough organic food to feed a family of four on only a quarter-acre of land, all year round.32
In addition to supplying yourself with nutrient-dense, chemical-free food, a garden provides other important benefits. It gives you valuable and enjoyable physical exercise while exposing you to the UV rays so many people miss, especially during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Gardening is also a natural antidepressant and anxiety reducer. According to a meta-analysis in Preventive Medicine Reports:33
“To our knowledge, this meta-analysis is the first to provide a quantitative synthesis of the evidence that gardening is beneficial for human health. Overall, the results suggest that participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health.
Indeed, the positive association with gardening was observed for a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance, and BMI, as well as increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unemployment, poverty, food insecurity and a likely economic depression. The Nourish Mint is a ray of hope and a new way forward for farmers and natural product businesses during these troubling times.