In the United States and other developed countries, the concept of sustainable food is often viewed through a narrow lens, focused solely on the environment. The COVID-19 outbreak has at least temporarily changed American lifestyles—closing schools, halting large gatherings, and shuttering dine-in restaurants—causing us all to take a closer look at our food system. This drastic change helps demonstrate that what makes our food choices sustainable is also how well they serve the needs of people—health, well-being, and the livelihoods.
It’s an important time to recognize that California’s more than 1,200 family dairy farms provide nutrient-rich, affordable, planet-smart, enjoyable foods that contribute significantly to the economy. Milk is unique in that it is produced, processed, and delivered fresh each and every day. The California dairy industry provides about 180,000 year-round jobs and is the largest contributor to the state’s agricultural economy. This includes careers at farms, processing plants, distribution centers, transportation companies, supply and support industries, and other entities. Employees throughout the entire dairy supply chain are essential, and they’ve continued working—ensuring a safe and nutritious food supply and providing important economic activity—throughout the stay-at-home order. It all starts at family-run farms that have taken extra precautions to ensure the health and safety of their staff and the continuity of our food supply.
“Through all of this, our employees have been very appreciative, and they’ve been going out of their way to follow the new safety guidelines and continue doing their best,” said Frank Cardoza, farm manager at Philip Verwey Farms. “We’ve limited the number of people on break at the same time, and we’ve asked employees to stay within their own work space, to ensure safe social distancing. The main surface areas are being cleaned hourly. We also encourage employees to stay home if they are not feeling well. Fortunately, we’ve all been staying healthy, and the farm is still running as it should, producing quality milk.”
While dairy farm managers work to safely maintain routines, dairy processors, food companies, communities and entire systems been challenged to make major changes. The stay-at-home order immeditely required that food be made available in different ways and in different places. This prompted critical efforts to make sure nutritous foods—regularly provided at schools—are still reaching children while schools are closed. About 7 percent of all fluid milk in the U.S. is usually consumed at schools, along with much cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products.
Many school districts rallied with their communities to continue providing meals to students and their families in need. To support these efforts and promote food access, Dairy Council of California—a nutrition education organization funded by dairy farm families and local milk processors to support community health—has partnered with the California Milk Processor Board and others to lead public awareness outreach. This includes creating an online webpage—in English and Spanish—to help families and community leaders find information about free school feeding sites and food bank locations nourishing vulnerable communities throughout California.
“Our priority is to help ensure children, families and school communities are nourished and supported academically while schools are closed,” said Tammy Anderson-Wise, Chief Executive Officer of Dairy Council of California. “Milk and dairy foods are nutritious, wholesome and an important part of the meals students receive at school. With food insecurity and unemployment rates rising, it is more critical than ever that we continue to work with our community partners to help keep families nourished.”
Food banks across the U.S. have also seen a significant spike in demand, as millions have been laid off or have had their hours reduced. Many farms and companies have stepped up, making large donations. This includes donations of dairy products, such as milk and cheese. Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and its California farm families, along with Alta Dena, have donated more than 12,000 gallons of milk to 15 food banks throughout Southern California. This is just one example of the many charitable efforts helping to sustain lives in this very difficult time.
In our not-so-distant American past life of sporting events, fundraiser dinners, and nights out—and even now as we stay home—consumers cherish dairy products. It’s not surprising that a number of creative approaches are being used to promote food access and enjoyment. While grocers struggle to restock shelves at a much faster rate, organizations such as the farmer-funded California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) are now providing stocking assistance. Many restaurants across the country are now serving as grocers, an approach to not only address distribution bottlenecks, but to also, hopefully, keep restaurants afloat. The CMAB is providing assistance to foodservice distributors to help their customers make this transition. These efforts are not only making sure people have something to eat, but foods that provide satisfaction, support local farms and businesses, and even honor tradition and culture. At a time like this, dairy foods can be especially comforting.
While dairy products are still largely reaching consumers—helping meet nutritional and societal needs—there have still been significant economic repercussions from this huge shock to the food system—impacting farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, and others, in addition to restaurant owners and employees. The milk prices that dairy farmers receive have dropped drastically and will be felt throughout the next few months or longer.
“My main concern for the farm is minimizing the amount of loss and surviving,” said Frank. “I’m worried we will lose a lot of dairies. And there’s a lot of businesses and communities that depend on these farms.”
No one can predict how soon our lives will return to normal or what a “new normal” may look like. One thing we do know is that California’s family dairy farms continue provide an important product. Milk is a significant contributor to health, wellness, happiness, jobs, and economic activity. California’s dairy farmers are also world leaders in planet-smart farming practices—producing more milk while using fewer resources. Their accomplishments in sustainability to date must not be forgotten, as we work collaboratively to meet today’s challenges and work toward a more resilient, nutritious, and sustainable food system. Let us recognize and appreciate all the important work being done by essential employees and volunteers everywhere to continue nourishing people, families, and communities near and far.
Thank you to all who help produce and deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable foods.