The data currently shows that production impact is minimal, meaning supply issues are coming from other parts of the chain.

By Mike Pomranz
May 22, 2020
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Among the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our lives, its effect on our food supply has been especially troubling. Unlike something like listeria, the coronavirus doesn’t contaminate food directly; instead, it disrupts the supply chain at almost every level: Illness and quarantine make maintaining a workforce more difficult; clusters of infections have shut down production hubs like meat processing plants; and restaurant closures have left plenty of food with nowhere to go. All of these factors can lead to potential food shortages.

But should we worry about our food supply? The Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, with help from Microsoft, decided to create a way not just for people to find out, but also to monitor the situation as we move forward: the Purdue Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index Dashboard.

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“At the onset of the COVID-related shutdowns in mid-March, when grocery shelves started going empty, the number one question I was repeatedly asked was: Are we going to have enough food?” Jayson L. Lusk, distinguished professor and department head of agricultural economics at Purdue, told me via email. “I thought it would be useful to create a tool or dashboard to try to help answer that question. […] If you're curious about where food is produced and how farmers and farm workers have been affected by COVID, this tool can help you answer those questions.”

The university explains that food supply vulnerability comes down to a series of factors: the number workers affected, where they work, the kind of crops and animals they work with, and the geographical concentration of production. Utilizing the Microsoft Azure and Power BI platforms, the dashboard combs data about individual counties across the country from multiple sources—looking at Johns Hopkins University data on the number of COVID cases to compare to the population and USDA data on the number agricultural employees and agricultural production levels. From there, the dashboard estimates the percent of total U.S. production of seven different commodities potentially at risk due to COVID-19 farmer and farm worker illnesses.

The good news is that, as Lusk told me, “Our estimated share of agricultural production at risk from COVID-related farm worker illnesses is very small (less than 1 percent), which I think helps provide some context for people about the nature of our food supply.”

Importantly, however, the dashboard only looks at one particular part of the supply chain: farmers and farm workers. Lusk explains that other disruptions to the food supply include “have been in the processing sector, which this version of the tool does not measure.” As a result, just because the dashboard says production levels aren’t being disrupted doesn’t mean shortages won’t still occur. And the data also serves as a major reminder that the problem isn’t necessarily about a lack of food, but making sure that food is able to follow the proper steps to get to market—or, when getting to market isn’t viable, to food banks.

Still, having this dashboard means that if production problems do crop up, the industry can potentially identify these emerging hotspot and address them. And for the general public, the tool is also a good way to learn about something that was increasingly popular even before this pandemic: Where does our food come from?