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State of the food system: The pandemic impacts restaurants, food security

Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 5:37 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -The pandemic has changed a lot in our lives, but the past year heavily impacted the food system—from growers and producers to restaurants and food banks.

Doug Levy, the owner of Feast, a local restaurant in Tucson, has had to switch gears in his business due to the pandemic. On Friday he brought meals to Casa Alitas, something he’s done during the pandemic. When his business had to close temporarily, his need to feed people didn’t. For so many funds raised, Feat would donate meals to places like Casa Alitas and the hospitals. So far, his business has donated more than 7,500 meals as of May 7, 2021.

“Full disclosure, it helps keep us open and put food on the table of our staff as well,” Levy said.

It’s just one example of how food providers had to shift. Supply chains were clogged due to the pandemic. Plus, around 30 percent of farmers will or have shifted what they grow because of COVID-19, according to a new report.

“Most of the time, any shift a farmer makes it’s because of what the market wants,” said Julie Murphree with the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation. “The Food Supply Chain had never had this drastic of a shift from literally overnight “eating out” to exclusively ‘eating at home.’ Our economists explain with both parents working or a single-parent home, a family’s spending food dollars “away from home” could range from 45% to more than 50% of their food spend over the last few decades. This went to zero during lock down.”

The Arizona Farm Bureau officials said this is no surprise as growers had to tailor to individuals instead of restaurants. Almost 70 percent of growers had to switch to some kind of online retailing system, according to the 2020-2021 State of the Tucson Food System report.

“There were weeks where we might get our seafood in, we might not,” Levy said.

The Arizona Farm Bureau says 7 out of 10 families are likely to continue eating and cooking at home. Shifts like this could strain an industry that’s already struggling. Twenty-five restaurants in the Tucson area closed during the pandemic, according to the Food System report. Grocery prices are on the rise, as labor is hard to come by for restaurants.

“It’s not over yet. There’s going to be a big ripple effect,” Levy said.

Food insecurity rose sharply in 2020 too—mainly in Hispanic and Latino populations hit hard by COVID-19. According to the Food System report, from March to August 2020, the percentage of food-insecure households in Arizona increased to 32 percent, up from 25 percent. Ten percent of those households were newly food insecure. The report shows nearly 30 percent more families received SNAP benefits in February of this year and people were awarded almost 60 percent more.

Researchers said finding ways to strengthen local food production and increasing access to food will help prevent another strain on the industry.

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