Tales From the Coronapocalypse

The pandemic has sharply increased demand at food pantries:

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in California has built “pop-up” pantries after some of its previous 275 or so sites had to stop operating during the pandemic, spokeswoman Keely Hopkins said. The new sites, many of which are serving hundreds of people per day, stay open for longer hours and use open spaces such as parking lots to facilitate social distancing, she added.

Paid staffers are diving in at many food banks to stock, sort and bag food for either delivery or drive-thru pickups, a measure they realized was necessary to protect volunteers, many of whom are older and particularly at risk for complications from the virus. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee limits volunteers to 10 per room to fill boxes.

The board of the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry has proposed closing because so many of its volunteers are elderly, including Judy Wahlstrom, who runs the program.

[Associated Press]

For the past two weeks I’ve been volunteering via CERT at our local food pantry, which has switched to drive-thru service to maintain social distancing. I can testify to many of this story’s main points. The first few days we had plenty of fresh produce and frozen meat to give away, donated by restaurants who had more than they could use and a local country club cleaning out its freezer. Now most of that stuff is gone, with little promise of future donations. The only thing we have in abundance? Easter candy — boxes upon boxes of donated Easter candy. Meanwhile, one long-time pantry volunteer told me that several pantries in neighboring Bridgeport have shut down because they were staffed by elderly volunteers who didn’t want to risk going to work.

Pork and beef will likely become scarcer at grocery stores too:

Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, indefinitely shut down a slaughter plant in South Dakota this week after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. The plant typically accounted for 4% to 5% of total hog processing in the U.S.

Two people who worked at a Tyson Foods Inc. pork plant in Iowa died and two dozen are ill, with operations down. Three people died who worked at a Tyson poultry plant in Georgia. A worker at a Cargill Inc. plant in Colorado also died. JBS USA delayed the reopening of a Pennsylvania beef plant from Thursday to Monday.

[Bloomberg]

One of the survivalist lessons I took away from Sandy was to learn to cook vegetarian. Without power for a week, the meat in our fridge went fast. A few times I bought meat in the late afternoon, then took it home and immediately grilled it (we had our Weber charcoal grill plus a little propane stove), but as I boiled my umpteenth pot of ramen noodles I realized I needed to round out my menu options with ingredients that didn’t need refrigeration. While my vegetarian repertoire is still small — my two mainstays are eggplant curry and tarka dhal — it sounds like it may be expanding soon.

In Europe and Canada, farmers are flying in foreign workers to pick their crops. Here in the States, the problem is lack of demand:

At C&E, restaurant and business closures have led to an estimated 40% decline in demand for the farm’s green beans, Colson said. With the drop in business in Florida, Colson says the farm has had to leave beans out in the field — meaning they will die off.

In an interview last week from his farm in Florida, Colson said they’d had 3 million pounds of green beans that weren’t able to go to fresh market. Most of that was sold at a reduced price to canneries.

The rest, roughly a quarter million pounds, was left in the field.

[Daily Press]

My solution: ask volunteers to pick a portion of the crops on behalf of local food banks and pantries, then allow farmers to take the full market value of the donation as a tax deduction.

And people would volunteer to pick green beans because, in general, they’re helpful:

In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths.” “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

[Financial Times]

I’ve run into the disaster myth too. After Sandy, the National Guard was deployed in our neighborhood, patrolling the beaches in full tactical gear — like something from Smedley’s era, there were rumors of boats coming across the Sound full of thieves targeting the abandoned houses along the shore. Even today I’ll still hear someone talk about the alleged looting that took place during Sandy. Yet there wasn’t a single documented incident of local looting or vandalism during Sandy or its aftermath.

Not only are people generally decent and courteous in bad times, they often look for ways to help. Our local firefighters have been turning away people who show up at the station asking to volunteer: they’re untrained and unvetted, so they point them toward private charities instead (which is a good point — if you’re looking to volunteer, then recognize it helps to be something more than a summer soldier or sunshine patriot). But the fact that our first responders have to decline offers for assistance rather than patrol against window-smashing pillagers speaks volumes about human behavior during crises.

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