boxed in

a photo of a stand of tomato plants at a hardware store. the green leafy plants are in black plastic tubs with a cage to keep them from falling over. i don’t have much of a green thumb. i would love to eat food that i grow, but given my track record we’d starve. i still love visiting nurseries, though!

At the start of the pandemic, my organization faced a new challenge. Business across sectors closed, making thousands of people unemployed overnight. The need for food spiked across our state, to a number that we hadn’t ever seen before. We started the pandemic like we would any disaster. We started importing in boxes of pre-packed shelf-stable food. But the pandemic is of course not like most disasters. Most disasters affect one city of region in the entire country. COVID spread itself around the whole world. Most disasters, like hurricanes, only last a few hours. COVID has lasted for almost a year since the earliest known cases.

Given the market forces, and our own supply chain, we made some decisions. One of those was to start mass-producing boxes of shelf-stable food. We designed these boxes to fit most communities’ needs. The subtext here is we did not design them to fit all communities’ needs. After a few months of this, supply chains started to return to normal. The enormous demand for food slowed to a more fathomable number. But now that we’re out of the woods, I have a chance to try a little hindsight.

what’s gained in a food box?

easier and safer. We had a lot of food to get out the door in a short amount of time. Food boxes made sense. They cut the contact time between two people. This was critical at the start of the pandemic because nobody knew all the ways the virus could spread. 

storage capacity, to some extent. While many of the people who need food pantry had refrigerators, not every food pantry does. Shelf-stable products are easier to store, even if they are bulkier. That said, food pantries can only store so many boxes, no matter what’s inside. As demand ballooned, some food pantries struggled to store the boxes they needed to serve.

what’s lost in a food box?

one size fits some but not all. we produced many thousands of boxes using a menu that was the same across the state. This means that some people receiving these boxes did not want to eat the items we packed into them. 

food for an emergency time, not a long time. we prioritized shelf-stable food over fresher but more perishable food. This makes sense in a disaster. If power has gone out across a large region, you wouldn’t want to give someone in that region a freezer’s worth of food. But COVID didn’t cause the same disruption that something like a tornado would have. Most people had working refrigerators and freezers. Eviction moratoriums protected many (but not everyone) from losing their homes. Those protections did not save anyone from having to pay back rent. 

the spices of life. And more than that, eating a diet of industrialized food can be very hard on the body. Industrialized food often lacks flavor, which it compensates for with excess salts. People can wash off the salt if they’re concerned about sodium, but that won’t make them more flavorful. If you don’t have spices at home, you’re going to be eating a lot of bland meals. As the disaster stretched on for months, people who could not afford food were still eating from cans. One of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic has been cooking. I also have the time and stability to be able to cook. Not everyone has that ability. 

what could we have done instead?

a greater variety of boxes. Even though one size doesn’t fit all, we could have planned for variety in the boxes. Or, we could have created boxes with a smaller base of items. Add-on or specialty items could have fit into these boxes. This would give food pantries the ability to customize boxes beyond some basics. In fact, we did move to a build-your-own system for most of our partners.

go bigger on perishable products. Later in the pandemic, we increased our access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This meant we could distribute fresher options to go with our shelf-stable offerings.

make ourselves obsolete. Imagine what we could do with a system that works for everyone! SNAP benefits (subsidized money for food) available to everyone who needed it. Removing means-testing from charity food programs. Free PPE for all essential workers. These are not ambitious programs, but they’re much more than we’ve had to work with.

the crisis next time

There’s so much more we could do in the food system to end hunger for everyone. My friend Clara recently shared with me the work of Chris Newman, a Black and Indigenous farmer, and the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms. He is part of a cooperative of farms in Washington, D.C. that seek to modernize the food industry. I hope that I won’t live to see another pandemic. No matter what comes next, we have to move beyond what we do now. We have to invest in a system that will serve us all.