What time is supper?

When there’s a crisis in her rural Ohio community, Jane Marshall is a first responder. She’s not the kind that arrives on scene in a big rig with screaming sirens and lights. She doesn’t come with medical supplies or wheeling a gurney.

Rather, Marshall drives a small Fiat 500. When she shows up, chances are she has a fresh pan of her famous cinnamon rolls, a handmade quilt, and a grandchild or two in tow. She has a big laugh, and an equal size heart to solve problems.

When coronavirus struck, Marshall was quick to whip up masks until she exhausted her stockpile of elastic. Dozens of local people picked up masks from Marshall’s mailbox at the end of her country lane. More distant friends and family were unexpectedly greeted, but not surprised, by care packages of masks and other homemade goodies from Marshall when stay-at-home orders began.

She started a Facebook group to share positive stories and encouragement for people who find themselves in new roles, thanks to the pandemic. On top of being a dairy farmer, Marshall has been a homeschool teacher, crafter, and cook for decades. Through technology, she’s helping people to get comfortable in the kitchen and offers a glimpse at life on her own farm.

As Marshall scrolled, she was bombarded with posts of outrage and questions about grocery store shortages. Posts from frustrated farmers and confused consumers filled her timeline. Letters from her own co-op that warned milk dumping may be necessary lay on her own kitchen table as a familiar question rang through the house, ‘Mom! What time is supper?’

It’s a simple question, and one Marshall had heard hollered from the door hundreds of times. In early May, it was exactly the inspiration she needed to write.

How long would it take to make a steak, baked potato, and salad dinner with ice cream for dessert? Most people would say 90 minutes or less.

That may be true after you have all the ingredients. But how long does it take to get the ingredients for the dinner? Most people would just stop at the grocery on the way home. These days it’s not a given that they will have what you need for your meal. Let’s look at the real time it takes to make that meal.

A cow’s gestation is nine months. The calf will grow for the next 15 months before it goes to the meat processor and on to the grocery store. It will take at least two full years to get that steak, cooked and on your plate.

The meat processors, in general, want to run at capacity for the best economy, so the feed lots are full of beef cows on a rotation to be processed to keep the processors full.

What about the baked potatoes? Farmers in Maine plant potatoes in early May and they’re harvested in September or October. Plan on five months to get the potatoes to your table.

The salad has leaf lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The greens would take about two months to grow. The cucumbers and tomatoes would take about three to four months from seed to harvest. Count on four months to get the whole salad on your plate.

Finally, the yummy ice cream. As a dairy product, it starts with the cow. It takes nine months gestation to get a calf, assumed to be a heifer (female). This heifer will grow for the next 18 months before she’s bred to have a calf of her own in another nine months. Then she’ll be able to give milk. Be ready to wait 27 months for your ice cream.

That steak dinner will take 27 months to secure the ingredients. “Wait!” you say. “That’s too long. And we can’t eat steak every night. Let’s substitute ice cream with apple pie and serve pork chops instead of steak.”

Apple pie is made of apples and pie dough, which is flour and lard. An apple tree has to grow three or four years before producing, but for this exercise the tree blooms in May and the apples are harvested in October. Count on a five-month wait for apples.

Flour comes from wheat, which is planted in October and harvested in July in the lower Midwest. That is nine months to get the wheat. Then it needs to be processed into flour.

The pork chops and the lard come from hogs. The gestation period of a hog is almost 114 days, not quite four months. From the time piglets are born, it takes about six months for the hog to grow to be processed. Again, the meat processors want to run at capacity so there are hogs scheduled to be processed every day. In all, pork chops and lard will set you back about 10 months.

Plan B supper is going to take 10 months to get the ingredients. That’s still a long time. Let’s try a simple meal of chicken and rice with fresh strawberries for dessert.

A chicken comes from an egg. The egg incubates for 28 days. The chick, once it hatches, takes eight weeks to get to big enough to process, which makes the total about three months to get chicken to your plate.

Rice is planted in late March and is harvested in July, so it takes four months.

The fresh strawberries came from established plants that were planted over a year ago. They bloom in early May and the berries are picked in June. So that is only a month to get fresh strawberries. This meal is by far the quickest at four months.

While these meals are made from ingredients grown in the U.S., the supply chain is very fragile. The old saying that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link is very true here. The farmers are producing plenty of food and the consumers want plenty of food in the grocery store. Kids aren’t in school or college, restaurants are not open for sit-down eating. The needs of our food system have changed. The U.S. consumer now needs the vast majority of food in retail packaging. That’s another link in the food supply chain that can’t change on a dime.

COVID-19 has made people realize what is important to live... access to doctors, hospitals, medicine, protective equipment, and lastly, and most importantly, food. There are places that have meat shortages because of the break in the processing in the food supply chain.

Food just doesn’t happen as this exercise shows. One kind of food can’t be changed into another kind. A cow can’t be changed to a chicken or a chicken can’t be made into a pig.

Even changing livestock on a farm doesn’t come easy because of barns, equipment, time, and processes. All farm products take time to produce and process at maturity.

So what time is supper? Not nearly as quick as you think.

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