Photo closeup of four beef hamburgers cooking on a grill.  The first side of the burgers has been cooked, because the tops of each burger patty have "grill marks" lining them. The orange grill flames are visible beneath the black cast iron grates of the grill and a few wisps of smoke are rising from the cooking surface.


COWvid-19: A Look Back at the Meat of 2020

It was a year of reckonings both big and small. In 2020, Covid-19 disrupted supply chains around the world as consumers adapted to the new realities of life in a pandemic. Sometimes, it took something as simple as an all-American entree to help us see how truly connected we all were.

Editor’s Note: How will 2020 go down in history? In the Hindsight 20/20 project from The Colorado Magazine, twenty of today's most insightful historians and thought leaders imagine themselves in 2120, looking back on 2020 and sharing their visions of how that year will stand the test of time.

A lot about 2020 was certainly historic. Many Americans confronted the Covid-19 pandemic, protested for racial justice across the nation, and participated in one of the more heated election cycles in history—events that spawned history books and live on in our collective memory today in 2120. But as we look back at 2020, we should also take time to reflect on seemingly mundane aspects of the year—the things that, for some, became forgotten relics of a momentous beginning of a new decade. 

I’m talking, of course, about hamburgers.

In the grand scheme of 2020, the beef hamburger patty may appear rather insignificant at first glance. At the time, however, the United States consumed more meat per capita than any other nation in the world. In 2019, the United States brought 27.2 billion pounds of beef to market, and Colorado alone produced 1.8 billion pounds. The average American consumed 54.5 pounds of beef annually. Whether at a fast food chain or the local grocery store, affordable beef was reliably available for eager consumers. But in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, it wasn’t.

Photo of a mother Red Angus cow and her calf, facing each other while standing in a green pasture.  It is a bright day, and the green grass stretches beyond them, reaching a white split-rail fence in the distance behind them.

Over the decades, many hundreds of Red Angus cattle had been raised annually in Colorado. Cattle could eat food largely inedible by humans and graze on land unsustainable to other crops.

Photo by Lance Cheung for Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Covid-19 disrupted supply chains around the globe. In Colorado and elsewhere, beef was no exception. In April 2020, national media attention focused on the JBS slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, as the plant experienced a surge in Covid-19 cases and shut down temporarily in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus among plant workers. As the summer dragged on, meat-processing facilities across the United States also paused their operations after Covid-19 spread among the employees who labored to transform cattle into the tons of packaged beef that Americans consumed every year.

When Covid-19 wreaked havoc on these facilities, consumers watched as beef prices rose in kind. Throughout 2019 and into the early months of 2020, ground beef cost around $3.80 to $4 per pound. Prices climbed by the end of spring, peaked at $5.33 per pound in June, and stayed above $4 for the remainder of the year. Beef was becoming more expensive just as record numbers of Americans filed for unemployment. Moreover, the workers who put the marked-up ground beef on grocery store shelves also got sick as Covid-19 continued to spread.

Photo of angle view of shelving down left side of canned good aisle in grocery store. Limited amount of canned beans and tomatoes are scattered throughout shelves. Shelves below "fruit" sign at opposite end of aisle appear to be more fully stocked. Shopping cart sits at far end of aisle.

These Arvada, Colorado grocery store shelves reveal the panic buying that transpired as a result of shoppers stocking up during the pandemic lockdown of 2020.

Photo by Alisa DiGiacomo. History Colorado 2020.31.33

As beef made its way from ranchers and meatpackers to grocery-store employees, restaurant workers, and consumers, Covid-19 touched almost every stage of the beef supply chain. The production, transportation, and consumption of beef may not seem monumental in a year filled with major events and transformations that still resonate 100 years later, but everyday things like ground beef offer us an opportunity to revisit what may be one of the more important reminders of the Covid-19 pandemic. Behind every product, be it a hamburger or the packages of toilet paper that flew off store shelves at the onset of the pandemic, were people—people whose labor we have long relied on to sustain our communities and daily life. The supply-chain disruptions wrought by Covid-19 forced people everywhere to recognize just how connected they were to one another—a lesson that bears significance to 2020 and 2120 alike.

More from the Hindsight 20/20 project in The Colorado Magazine

A Plateful of Pandemic Today in 2120, of course, having a meal is as easy as imagining what we want and grabbing it from the replicator. But in the old days, it wasn’t so easy. And 2020 is when everything changed.

Sold Out! Outdoor Rec in a Disaster Year  When public health concerns precluded many forms of leisure, Americans eager for escape envisioned the woods and waters as safe places—or safe enough—to find solace and adventure. They emptied shelves of tents, bikes, and more as they made the best of a difficult situation. Still, there was no escaping the constraints of modern times.

American Studies 102: Survey of 21st Century US “Race” Relations  A twenty-second-century American Studies professor looks back at the antiquated notion of “race” that prevailed in 2020, when high-profile incidents of anti-Blackness sparked the War of Reckoning and, ultimately, the Great Reconciliation.