Rotting food. Hungry masses. Chaotic supply chains. Coronavirus upends the U.S. food system

Rotting food. Hungry masses. Chaotic supply chains. Coronavirus upends the U.S. food system

Kevin Rector

LA Times
Associates fill orders for Ralphs and Food 4 Less grocery stores at the Ralphs Distribution Center in Riverside. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Near downtown Los Angeles, a meat processing plant ramped up production even as it worked to keep frontline employees separated from one another. In Salinas, Calif., a lettuce grower hustled to redirect supply after being forced to plow under unused crops.

In the Bay Area, a food distributor that previously served restaurants started selling produce boxes directly to consumers. Near the Mexico border, a food bank expanded distribution to meet an explosion of need. And in Hollywood, a nonprofit that has served sit-down meals to homeless people for 33 years shifted to takeout.

“We’ve completely had to change what we’re doing,” said Sherry Bonanno, executive director of the Hollywood Food Coalition. “We just keep adapting and adjusting.”

In less time than it takes a farmer to plant and harvest a head of lettuce, the nation’s entire food industry has been flipped on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. An intricate system for matching supply with demand, established over decades, has been thrown out of whack just as unemployment and food insecurity are skyrocketing among families.

The fallout has been particularly severe in California, where more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown — and where hunger and homelessness were already deeply entrenched.

In response, a vast network of food producers, distributors, retailers and advocates have been scrambling to find a new equilibrium, to shore up the nation’s food supply and their own bottom lines while reducing waste and want.

In dozens of interviews, farmers, truckers, grocery executives, restaurateurs, food


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