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While food systems in the United States
in normal times deliver abundance at historically low cost, disruptions during the pandemic revealed stress points beyond the underserving of low-income communities.
The United States has two food supply chains: one for industry (restaurants, schools, etc.) and one for consumers (groceries, farm markets). Prior to the pandemic, about half the meals in the United States were eaten outside
the home. With lockdowns, demand shi ed signi cantly from the industry chain to the consumer chain, but supply couldn’t always adjust.
However, as food journalist Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Review, “Local food systems have proved surprisingly resilient. Small, diversi ed farmers who supply restaurants have had an easier time  nding new markets; the popularity of community-supported agriculture (CSA) is taking o , as people who are cooking at home sign up for weekly boxes of produce from regional growers.”
Farm to table
When shi ing demand caused large agribusinesses to pour out milk and euthanize hogs as their wholesale markets vanished, small farmers had the  exibility to pivot. In normal times, most of Loma Farm’s income is from restaurants, but even those with vigorous take-out sales had to cut back this year. The farm, located in Leelanau County, adjusted by doubling its CSA subscriptions, selling more to local grocers (including Oryana), and adding an online market to its website.
“We’ve been reasonably resilient,” said Nic Theisen, who owns Loma Farm with his wife, Sara, “but it’s certainly been an extremely challenging year for us.” Selling directly to customers through the CSA and farm markets requires more labor than do restaurant bulk sales.
“Pro t margins on a farm are so small as it is, so the more we have to handle the food, the less likely we are to see a be er bo om line,” Theisen said. “This is the hardest we’ve had to work for the slimmest income.”
Still, he knows the situation could be worse and his family is grateful to be in a vibrant local food community. This summer, in partnership with Gary and Allison Jonas of The Li le Fleet, Loma opened Farm Club, a restaurant, brewery, and market. The market’s curbside pickup option has been especially popular in the neighborhood, o ering the virus-wary a convenient and safe way to get quality farm goods.
“Making it easier for people to access this food is really the ticket,” Theisen said.
What happened to all the  our?
Flexibility also has been the pandemic superpower for producers like Common Good Bakery in Traverse City.
As owner Jason Gollan explained, the  our shortage was
a packaging problem. Bakeries and other food services purchase  our in large quantities, usually 50 pound bags. At grocery stores,  our is typically sold in 5 pound bags. When
the pandemic hit, national brands such as the employee- owned King Arthur Baking Company had unprecedented demand on the grocery side as millions of people embraced baking at home. Further complicating ma ers, about 90% of  our sales at groceries usually occur in the last two months of the year, so this untimely spike quickly depleted King Arthur’s consumer-sized packaging supplies.
“Nothing changed for us. We could buy whatever we always buy,” Gollan said. So he resolved to help his customers in a new way.
“We’ve tried to design our business to serve the needs of as many constituencies as we can. A lot of that means listening. Customers were calling and asking for things they couldn’t  nd,” Gollan said.
Common Good began portioning some of its large  our inventory into 5 pound bags and o ering it for curbside pickup through its online platform, along with toilet paper, eggs, and yeast.
Back at Oryana
Perhaps no product category has highlighted the vulnerabilities of the food system more than meat. Processing is highly concentrated in a handful of large slaughterhouses, which were hit hard by Covid-19 outbreaks, bringing public a ention to the hazards and low pay experienced by these and other essential workers. Labor and regulatory issues in the meat industry are beyond the scope of this article, but su ce it to say that re-localizing this sector would enhance resiliency.
At Oryana West, meat manager John Sirrine discovered the value of local suppliers. As the pandemic hit, the former Lucky’s store had just been purchased by Oryana, which takes pride in being northern Michigan’s premier grocery for local products.
“We have increased our local meat buying considerably because we never carried any of these products before,” Sirrine said. And, while the supply situation has mostly normalized, Oryana West continues to experience some order shortages and higher prices from its national distributor, but “local farmers are still able to deliver the same great products.”
Final thoughts
As Michael Pollan said in a YouTube interview on Manny’s Live, “If you want to  nd a system that is more resilient, it’s a system in which there are thousands, tens of thousands of nodes that are producing your food, including your meat and your produce, and that kind of system might be more expensive in the short term, but in the long term, it will withstand these shocks.”
Meanwhile, those who want to keep northern Michigan’s food system strong can buy directly from local producers or conveniently at Oryana, and as Nic Theisen urges, don’t forget to support the local restaurants, even if it’s just for take-out. “Some of them are doing just  ne right now, but concern over the winter is palpable.”
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