Currently viewing the category: "Econ-o’food"

By Leah Costlow & Will Masters

More than 7 months into the pandemic, America remains in upheaval. Massive job losses, disease risks and other disruptions continue to affect almost every American household. What’s happened to jobs and prices in the food system?

Back in January 2019, this blog had a post on employment trends in agriculture and food in the US. We were recently prompted by Niamh Kelly at Glopan to revisit those data, to provide an update on jobs and prices in the pandemic, beyond the April 2020 Friedman seminar on COVID in the food system. Plenty of others have written in more detail on how COVID is affecting the food system, for example among agricultural economics in this special issue of the AEPP journal, or the wonderful journalists at FERN, The Counter and so many other outlets. This post is intended to complement those more detailed analyses, putting COVID in the context of longer-term trends than are easy to overlook.

1. Food service jobs were the hardest hit, and have not recovered

Before the pandemic, by far the fastest growth in new food jobs was in food and beverage service. The spread of COVID forced Americans to stay home, and half of all food service jobs were lost between January and April. Workers in food manufacturing stayed on the job but faced high levels of disease transmission, especially in crowded meatpacking plants.

About half of the lost food service jobs have since returned, but we still have about a decade’s worth of job growth left to recover. The chart below uses Current Employment Survey to compare the three main kinds of off-farm jobs in the food system, and compare them to jobs on farms:

2. Groceries are more expensive, but farmers are paid less

Beyond its direct impact through illness, isolation and job loss, the pandemic has had a huge impact on food prices. As discussed in our April seminar on COVID impacts, at first there were a few wild swings in retail and farm prices as supply chains switched over from restaurants to grocery stores. Now prices have stabilized, but not in a good way: Consumers are paying more for groceries, while farmers get less for their raw produce.

The chart below shows U.S. national average prices for food at each level of the supply chain, with each item weighted by its share of total expenditure, and each index set to 100 in January 2020. There was a brief spike in May for producers’ wholesale prices, shown in red, indicating a period of scarcity due to panic buying and stock buildups, but general the picture is simply a wider markups along the farm-to-consumer supply chain due to increased costs imposed by COVID.

Source, with updates and details:

3. Pandemic grocery spending is still sky-high

The wild swing in consumer spending from food service to groceries is shown in the chart below, revealing that only half of the initial COVID shock was recovered by mid-September. Further switch back to restaurants instead of grocery stores will be limited by continued spread of the disease, especially as cold weather forces more people indoors where transmission rates are higher.

Source, updates and details:

4. Farm jobs remain rare for those who don’t own a farm

The USDA counts about 2 million farms in the U.S. About 98% of them are owner-operated family enterprises with few if any employees. Some are newly formed, helped by efforts like our New Entry Sustainable Farming Program, but most are run by family members who grew up farming. Until the 1990s, U.S. farm families were poorer than non-farm families, often much poorer, and most of them left farming in search of higher incomes in towns and cities. The number of farm families peaked at almost 7 million farms in 1935. Many exits from farming were voluntary, but in the 1930s and again in the 1980s many faced bankruptcy due to low prices or high interest rates, and about one million Black farmers who acquired land after the civil war were forced off by violence and other means.

By the 1990s, farm exits had slowed to a crawl, because remaining farmers were renting or had bought enough of their neighbors’ land for farm sizes to be big enough to employ one or two family members at the prevailing standard of living. At those farm sizes, thanks to high and rising productivity per acre using the latest seeds and other techniques, farm incomes reached and passed average incomes of other American in the 1990s. Rural poverty remained widespread but farm owners rarely have incomes below U.S. poverty lines, and thanks to high land values and other assets their wealth is now far above the U.S. average. Owning a farm now requires prodigious skills and considerable wealth, but not a lot of time: the last big survey of labor use on U.S. farms found that they took about 1.5 person-years to run (an average of 3,250 hrs/yr), with family members still doing most of the work, as shown in Table 4 of this report.

The few jobs in farming that do exist are often seasonal, and the number of hired farmworkers counted by the USDA in April 2020 was no different or even higher than expected for the time of year. Early lockdowns prevented some H2-A guestworkers from arriving in the U.S. on schedule, but in April the Department of Homeland Security issued a rule making it easier for farm owners to hire H2-A workers who were already in the country. Farmworker safety is the more serious problem, as poor housing conditions and shared transportation were implicated in several large COVID-19 outbreaks in the fresh fruit and vegetable industry this summer.

The chart below summarizes the overall employment data from successive waves of farm labor surveys in the 1990s and 2000s. The only category with continuous measurement is “directly hired” workers, which declined in the 2000s and has not increased since the 2008 recession.

5. Farms provide food, but off-farm work provides employment

Farms are the source of food, but jobs in the food system start after harvest. Food manufacturing provides about twice as many jobs as farming, and grew significantly from its post-recession bottom of 1.4 million jobs in January 2010 to an all-time high of almost 1.7 million jobs in October 2019. Job levels dropped modestly in April 2020 and have mostly recovered since then. Losses were highest in bread and tortilla manufacturing, but were generally divided across multiple sectors of food manufacturing. Notably, workers stayed on the job despite massive health risks in meatpacking plants, which is the largest subsector of food manufacturing with over 500,000 jobs.

Data on non-farm jobs are collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Surveys.  The chart below compares total employment on farms with the number of jobs classified as food manufacturing, from January 2008 through July 2020.

In conclusion…

The U.S. food system is a diverse patchwork, offering many different kinds of jobs. Those most hard-hit by COVID are those exposed to outbreaks in meatpacking and other unsafe workplaces, and people in the restaurant and food service industry whose customers stayed home to avoid illness. COVID has also imposed severe costs on everyone through wider marketing margins, with higher retail prices paid by consumers and lower bulk commodity prices received by producers.

In the U.S. as in other high-income countries, the number of jobs on farms is low and not growing. The number of jobs in food manufacturing is about twice that of farming, but that number is also not growing. Net job creation occurs primarily in service activities, partly in grocery retailing which now provides over 3 million jobs, about four times as many as farming, but mostly in food service which has added almost 3 million jobs over the past decade. All of that decade’s job growth and more was wiped out by COVID, putting service workers at the heart of efforts such as Boston City Councillor Michelle Wu’s food justice agenda. It’s election time in America, with everything at stake. The food system is central to all our lives and deserves our close attention.


One of the hardest tasks in economics is to recognize and understand self-interest without condoning selfishness. There is some evidence that Econ 101 might attract and encourage more selfish behavior, a tragic mistake which the great economist Paul Samuelson described as “learning how to spell banana, but not when to stop.” Our task is to make the round trip from individuals’ self-interest to a deeper understanding of the common good, and come out wiser at the end.

At any time but especially now it might be helpful to reflect on how economics can help us be more prosocial, using our capacity for empathy to build a stronger and more effective society. Here’s an example, edited lightly with added emphasis in bold type, from the class discussion board.

After our class sessions on market structure and game theory, a student wrote:

I enjoyed the last lecture, the explanation on the “prisoner’s dilemma”, the strategic interactions that must take place, and how thinking about other’s choices helps guide our own. It’s sad to think about it but, aren’t most of our life engagements “zero-sum” games?

Here’s how I responded:

Thanks for raising the prisoner’s dilemma results in this thread — and especially your last point regarding whether most of our life engagements are zero-sum games.  That’s such an interesting and important question. 

One key insight from economics is that in fact there are many, many positive-sum games in which people naturally choose to cooperate with each other. 

Every time you act politely, stop to let another person pass or whatever you’re engaging in positive-sum interactions.  Those are actually the vast majority of our engagements with other people. 

Then there are negative-sum interactions, where any interaction turns sour so it’s best to walk away.  We don’t observe many of them because people do just avoid those kinds of engagements. 

The punch line is that zero-sum interactions are the focus of attention because they’re on the borderline, and we can influence the social norms that help determine the outcome.

Sometimes we can be architects of our social environment, and choose the payoffs from our interactions in ways that make them more positive-sum. If we do that, collaboration becomes the natural choice for everyone without having to rely on enforcement and threats of punishment if people cheat. 

One way to read the rise of civilization is that we’ve increasingly set things up so that, as soon as people learn how the system works, we realize it’s better to be nice than to be nasty. 

Of course there are limits to the power of incentives, especially because the incentives for being nice almost always come in the future, and understanding them requires some effort of imagination and empathy. 

For that reason, short-sighted and non-empathetic people will see interactions as zero sum conflicts even when there are really big gains from acting cooperatively.  Those people may choose to cheat, missing out on the benefits from cooperation. 

My sense is that, even when the actual payoffs are positive-sum, a lot of social progress relies on increasing levels of education and especially education in the humanities, about empathy and social life, precisely for the purpose of increasing cooperation in interactions that reward it but require high-level understanding to succeed.

That’s some pretty philosophical stuff for a class on food policy, but I think you’ll see how it follows naturally from this approach to economics.

And then, the nicest reply:

Thank you so much!! Faith in humanity restored.


A Friedman alum recently sent me a draft plan for how to fix the broken U.S. food system, wondering what I thought of it. That prompted a long response which I’ll share with you here.

If you’re in a hurry — tl, dr: The real culprit behind our food woes is systemic political and market failure, and the best way forward is smart regulation aimed at structural change, alongside individual responsibility for what we say and do every day. That lesson follows from the exemplary work of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other youth-led efforts that we might call Gen C activism. The discussion below is not specifically about Black Lives, or about climate activism, but is what I’ve learned from those movements about social change.

Now, the long version:

Any effort to “fix our broken food system” starts with a diagnosis of the problem, observing the many ways that existing institutions harm workers, worsen health and degrade our environment. The draft reform plan I was sent attributes our many woes in agriculture and nutrition to the most visible actors involved, namely the highly specialized agribusinesses and large-scale corporations that supply most grocery stores and restaurant meals. Based on this observation, the plan endorses a widely shared vision of more localized production, whereby each place becomes more self-reliant and resilient through self-provisioning.

Is food sovereignty’s focus on localism the way forward for our food system? Or is the effort to build shorter, locally-controlled supply chains likely to leave other structural problems unchecked? In my view, blaming specialization and trade for our problems is mostly a distraction, and local self-provision is fine as far it goes but that’s not very far. Like other social movements today, we can go look more deeply at the underlying causes of what we see. The food system experiences a variety of political and market failures, the remedies for which include smart regulation aimed at structural change accompanied by individual responsibility for personal choices. That diagnosis comes from academic research in agricultural and food economics, but its societal and policy implementation is heavily influenced by the Movement for Black Lives and responses to climate change and COVID.

In this view, food-specific instruments like package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, fruit and vegetable vouchers as well as soda taxes and nutrition education can all be extremely helpful — especially big programs like SNAP and WIC — but more durable solutions for the whole population come from recognizing that our food system is not just crops, livestock and home cooking: it’s a giant manufacturing and service industry and should be treated as such, with the same kind of regulatory attention that governs transportation, housing, health care and other sectors.

…and now, the really long version:

To start, some context and motivation: Over the past few years, the Movement for Black Lives and young people’s activism around school shootings, climate change and now Covid-19, which I’ll call Generation C, have profoundly altered how I think and talk about food systems. There are threads of continuity but also novelty, unpeeling layers of structural conditions and personal experiences that shape language and understanding. My own life has been propelled by countless privileges, thanks to how my family became white in America. In my view now, Black Lives and Gen C point the way to positive change in three distinct ways:

  • First, who’s in charge: older people like me (next birthday is #60, same as Barack Obama) should soon step back and let younger people run things. There is a big need for the wisdom of elders, but my own role is mainly to help Tufts grads go out and do the work.
  • Second, structural change. Both the Movement for Black Lives and much of Gen C activism is explicitly anti-capitalist, especially regarding corporate control of government. The system they oppose is what economists call crony capitalism, where legislators and judges and agencies serve the owners of existing businesses instead of newcomers, customers and workers.
  • Third, individual behavior. Social science teaches us how large-scale long-term forces reflect and shape our small everyday actions. To shift the whole, each of us has a responsibility to signal our intentions, aligning what we say and do with our social goals. I am a proud member of the Heterodox Academy, and am well aware that overzealous speech police can lead to firing the innocent and self-indulgent guilt, but change starts and ends with personal responsibility for what we do in our professional and personal lives.

For the food system in particular, my perspective comes from working on farms as a kid, then surveying hundreds of farm families in grad school, analyzing terabytes of other data in countless ways and about 40 years of reading everything I can about agriculture, food and nutrition. Most of what I know is academic economics, the kind of social science that I teach in NUTR 238, but I also read a lot in the natural and health sciences.

From all that data and experience, one simple thing we’ve learned about the food system is that supply chains deliver what you put into them. Specialization and long-distance trade can bring good things, like year-round vegetables and rewarding jobs, and they can also do many bad things. For innovation and investment to deliver more of what we want, companies need a regulatory environment and price signals to move in that direction. Most of my adult life has been lived in the Reagan-Bush-Trump era of deregulation and corporate influence in government, but we could soon enter a new era of collective action and personal responsibility.

Fixing the food system in a climate-smart, post-COVID era where Black Lives Matter could involve the Federal government, but only if the U.S. as a whole has a sufficiently large wave election to shift control of the Senate as well as the White House. If that doesn’t happen, the Federal government will remain part of the problem rather than the solution, and steps forward will be taken only by state and local government in progressive places, and by individual consumers, farmers and companies everywhere who choose to align their private behavior with their social goals.

In economics as in medicine, successful interventions start with correct diagnoses and specific remedies, aiming to limit solve problems effectively with few side effects. The way COVID hit the food system, for example, includes illness among meatpackers and migrant farmworkers (migrant meaning that they move from farm to farm). Outbreaks at big companies got the headlines, but the virus itself spreads wherever it can. The astonishing COVID map from Leah Douglas at FERN reveals that, as in nursing homes and other workplaces, big groups are more likely to have cases but may actually be safer on a per-capita basis if the space is managed well. Replacing one 2,000-worker plant with ten 200-employee facilities or a hundred 20-person sites could be better, worse or the same for their communities, depending on how workers are treated.

Even where the illness itself is controlled, COVID has killed jobs for millions of low income workers, and forced a sudden shift to groceries for food at home. Did having a highly specialized food system with long supply chains make us more vulnerable to COVID, or less? The transition from restaurant supply to retail sale did involve a lot of spilled milk and spoiled vegetables, but was about the same problem as switching toilet paper from office to home use.  In any case the resilience of supply chains is no consolation to the millions of food workers who lost their jobs, disproportionately Black and brown and low-income people with limited education, but their job loss is a different problem than supply disruption – and the solution to food-system unemployment is not to have all those restaurant kitchen workers become local farmers, since there is not nearly enough capital or land to go around.

At last, we get to the conclusion of this essay:  If our food system woes aren’t caused by the big specialized companies involved, what is it that caused our many problems in agriculture, food and nutrition?

For that I’d say: The systemic failures behind our food woes are regulatory in nature. We are trying to manage agriculture and nutrition using institutions like the USDA and FDA that are over a hundred years old, and our debates focus on Farm Bill measures, tax/subsidy instruments and programs that help some people while leaving structural problems unchecked. Food-specific instruments like SNAP and WIC as well as package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, soda taxes and nutrition education can be shown to help, but the most durable large-scale solutions for everyone come from recognizing that our food system is fundamentally like other manufacturing and service industries and should be treated as such. Most importantly:

  1. For heathy diets, we need to treat nutrition and food safety the same way we’ve gotten safer electrical appliances, buildings and transportation. What’s sold at grocery stores and restaurants should be governed the same way we govern what’s at hardware stores, auto dealerships and apartment buildings, ensuring that consumers have choice among options whose safety and functionality is enforced by law.
  2. For decent jobs, we need to help food service and farmworkers the same way we’ve improved employment conditions elsewhere, with minimum wages and collective bargaining and labor protections that treat every worker with dignity and respect.
  3. For environmental quality, we should treat water and farmland the same way we treat resources in other sectors, with direct regulation of pollutants and other external harms; as with housing, the goal should be more farming rather than less, adopting new practices that reduce the overall footprint of the whole system.
  4. For plant and animal life, we should treat antibiotics and pesticides the same way we should treat other public health concerns, with a focus on harm reduction from misuse.
  5. For monopoly power, we need the same anti-trust enforcement to promote competition, entry of entrepreneurs and survival of small businesses as in other sectors.

The pattern here should be clear: all too often, we still think of food as it comes out of the ground, to be managed with 1930s-era policy instruments.  One we see food as a modern manufacturing and service sector like any other, where agriculture produces ingredients and food companies make food, then we recognize the opportunity for a lot of helpful regulation.  That may seem like an anti-market view, but it’s straight from the modern ‘neoliberal’ playbook of policing the marketplace to be a level playing field so it can attract as much activity as possible, to be pro-farmer and pro-business in a way that promotes public health and long-term resilience.

To conclude… this is a teaching blog, aimed at supporting NUTR 238: Economics for Food and Nutrition Policy. The purpose of that course, and of academic economics in general, is to help people identify and meet our societal goals. These goals include all peoples’ dignity and living standards, human health and the environment as well as “the economy” in the sense of market activity. Like all of economics, our goal is to identify both market failures and policy failures, and help people solve both with the appropriate instruments. In the U.S. food system, the most under-used part of the policy toolkit is regulation, due to decades of anti-regulatory fever that came to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980. The era of electing leaders who dislike government may finally be coming to an end. If America does have a sufficiently strong wave election in 2020, the U.S. and the world could begin using a more complete armory of policy instruments to improve the food system and so much else — with hundreds of Friedman School graduates on the front lines of change.


This semester’s all-school speaker series ended with two panels on COVID-19, first on disease forecasting from Elena Naumova & Ryan Simpson, and then on impacts in ag., food & nutrition from me, Sean Cash and Norbert Wilson.
You can stream the archive of recorded video, or download my slide deck. My opening summary of the situation is an expanded version of an EconoFact memo, and here is a gallery of the slides for a quick scroll, followed by links to selected online resources:

…and the deck ends with links to selected online resources:

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
— Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
– Epidemiological forecasts
   – for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
   – for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
– Global monitoring from Our World in Data
– Daily situation reports from the WHO
– Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals:

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education


The slide deck can be downloaded here. Feel free to adapt & use! Slide #3 is a gif showing spread across countries.

For the full thread on twitter, click below:


Public outreach generally works better on twitter, but here is a blog version of some posts there about COVID-19 in the food system. This virus is tearing a huge hole in the fabric of every society on earth, with a sudden, synchronized loss of life and well-being that makes almost everything harder. With fewer people and less resources, we will have to work smarter and better.

First of all, who does what work in the food system, and how can we help? Last year I posted some data on who does what work in U.S. food systems. Prompted by this crisis, I just added links to the best job listings for Tufts Nutrition grads in a new menu to the right of this post.

Then to prompt discussion in our weekly PhD student seminar, I prepared a few slides that should be self-explanatory. Imagine below, or to use in other settings you can download the slides.

The last slide was a summary of my COVID-19 links in the post preceding this one (scroll down to see). There are also links to great things posted by other Friedman faculty such as Patrick Webb’s essay on social bridging, a multi-author piece on social networks in humanitarian crises, and other items collected on the Friedman School’s page of faculty writing about COVID-19.


Many organizations have stepped up with amazing resources on COVID-19 impacts and responses around the world. Here’s a set of links I’ve found helpful that might be of use for students, faculty and staff around the Friedman School of Nutrition or in related groups. Categories shown are in rough order of urgency and relevance for us, especially regarding impacts and responses in agriculture and the food system. Please comment or email to me any additions or updates.

1. Boston-area volunteering
— Public health students supporting local public health agencies
— Health science students supporting medical staff at BMC & HMS
— Neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid compiled by Boston Public Library

2. The basics
— Our indispensable U.S. CDC & Massachusetts Dept of Public Health
— Announcements and info for Tufts University & the Friedman School
–Covid-related nutrition advice from dieticians in the US and UK

3. Data on impacts and responses
–Epidemiological forecasts
– for the U.S. and individual states, from IHME
– for the U.S., UK and Europe, from Imperial College MRC
–Global monitoring from Our World in Data
–Daily situation reports from the WHO
–Africa-specific info from Amref, AfricaCDC, and WHO-Africa

4. Agriculture, food and nutrition
–UN Standing Committee on Nutrition list of resources
–UN system agency responses from FAO, WFP & UNICEF
–Research from the Center for Global Development & IFPRI
–Global impacts on school meals:

5. Analyses and writing of special interest (to me)
— IRI on consumers’ response in terms of food purchases
— Eater’s data on impacts for US restaurants
— IEG Vu on food system in Italy (+ useful weekly agribusiness briefing)
— Gro Intelligence ag data analyses:
— Economists estimating the payoff from social (physical) distancing

6. The great migration to online learning
— AAUP on Coronavirus impacts & response in higher education
— Michael Bruening’s version of I will survive (>2 million views!)

5. A daily general news source that won’t drive you crazy
— Website and newsletters from Axios (“smart brevity”)