Expert Pitch

For rural communities, COVID-19 exacerbates inequities

Cornell University
9-Apr-2020 3:05 PM EDT, by Cornell University

The coronavirus pandemic has already hit U.S. farmers hard, after it further drove down crop and livestock prices and raised concerns about labor shortages on farms. As we look ahead at the weeks to come, experts warn about impact the virus could have on the country’s food supply and rural communities as a whole.

Heidi Mouillesseaux-Kunzman, a senior Cornell Cooperative Extension Associate with the Community and Regional Development Institute (CaRDI), is an expert on community resiliency and revitalization as well as local and regional food systems. She says the coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to analyze weak points in the global food system.


Mouillesseaux-Kunzman says:

“There is already a lot of talk among local and regional food systems practitioners about how COVID-19 can be a real opportunity to draw attention to long-perceived vulnerabilities in the global food system, and simultaneously strengthen local and regional food systems and communities (rural and urban).

“This isn’t an ‘either – or’ proposition between global and local/regional. The infrastructure currently supporting this interest in local wasn’t at the scale it is now, even 10-20 years ago, and begs some interesting questions about how this might impact rural areas in the future if it were supported with meaningful investment in local and regional food systems –perhaps even from a national food security perspective.”


Beth Lyon, law professor and founder of Cornell’s Farmworker’s Legal Assistance Clinic, is an expert on the laws and policies that affect immigrant workers. She says the pandemic has put a spotlight on the need to give farmworkers permanent immigration status.


Lyon says:

“Under this real threat of disruption to the world’s food production, America’s longstanding betrayal of farmworkers must at last come to the fore. From chattel slavery to convict leasing to the bracero program, up to today’s situation where most farmworkers are either undocumented or heavily exploited guest workers, it is time to break with history and finally take commonsense measures to protect this essential workforce.

“Now, more than ever, farmworkers must be given permanent immigration status and the ability to take legally protected concerted action to lower the risk of COVID-19 and maintain food security, locally and nationally.”


David Kay, a senior Cornell Cooperative Extension Associate with the Community and Regional Development Institute (CaRDI), is an expert in energy, land use, community development and regional economics. He says the pandemic will have far-reaching consequences on rural communities.


Kay says:

“Systemic crises tend to highlight and exacerbate existing inequities and trends. These challenges include relative and absolute population decline, older populations, more limited transportation options, higher poverty rates, higher disability rates, greater economic dependence on public resources, fewer job options and higher unemployment, greater mistrust of public sector interventions, greater difficulty supporting quality public education, high dependence on vulnerable and undocumented workers for farm labor, and more.  

“From my own long-term work with economic impact analysis, I am also concerned that the economy of scale issues that have influenced rural hospital closures will have parallel ‘threshold’ effects in other areas of the economy that provide vital goods and services to rural populations. While business and non-profit closures in urban areas can have very negative impacts too, customers in rural areas are much less likely to have practical alternatives to access many important goods and services.”

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