Lessons from COVID-19: Preparing Food Systems for Future Emergencies

Preparedness, Part 1

September 11, 2020

Individuals and communities must equip themselves for emergencies before they happen. Anyone who has seen the empty grocery store shelves since the COVID-19 pandemic hit can recognize the importance of having a stockpile of resources in advance of a disaster.  Yet the pandemic has highlighted the U.S. food system’s lack of preparation for such a large, ongoing public health crisis. With high rates of food- insecure households, prominent financial challenges and barriers to food distribution, our nation's already strained food system is struggling to meet surging community needs to address hunger.

Beyond current preparedness and response efforts, communities also need to think about how to redesign local systems to be more resilient in response to future emergencies. But how?

For starters, a stable food system must go beyond addressing hunger and prioritize nutrition. Nutrition insecurity not only increases the rates of chronic conditions in many communities, but also contributes to health disparities that make some community members more vulnerable to the negative health impacts of emergencies, such as severe complications from COVID-19.

Additionally, planning needs to involve a variety of stakeholders who can generate new solutions to addressing food insecurity at the policy and systems level, including those members of the community who are most affected. Creating a food policy council, or FPC, is one way of engaging diverse organizations and community members in order to address current food-related needs while also expanding local policies and infrastructure to prepare for the future. In the current context, FPC’s can take lessons learned from the pandemic and incorporate them into the development of emergency preparedness policies that adequately meet the needs of community members long-term.

While many project teams from the new Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge cohort are involved in rapid-response to urgent food needs, they also understand the importance of planning ahead for longer-term systems and policy change that can address existing nutrition disparities before another crisis strikes.

For United Way of Passaic County, formulating an appropriate emergency food response plan for Paterson residents is a key priority. The team initially provided choice pantries and fresh produce options to their community, but those were shut down as a result of COVID. With emergency food response limiting residents primarily to nonperishable foods, the Paterson team has now taken a step back to closely analyze the crisis response measures underway in their community. Project team lead Mary Celis recognizes that while nonperishable foods address hunger, they also worsen health disparities because they do not sufficiently meet nutritional needs. Acknowledging the unintended health consequences of providing foods with limited nutritional value, the team is now trying to safely bring back initiatives that give residents access to foods that promote health as the pandemic continues.

With their overarching priorities of food and nutrition security remaining, project teams are also leveraging new partnerships to more adequately meet community needs. For example, the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council in Collier County will establish a FPC to:

  • coordinate local efforts for emergency feeding responses;
  • strengthen communications between social service agencies and food system partners; and
  • distribute locally grown foods to hunger relief programs.

The goal is to establish procedures for mitigating food and nutrition insecurity during emergencies by making a written emergency preparedness and response plan for food acquisitions and distribution that can withstand the stress of any disaster.

Food systems are increasingly exposed to drivers of change that are hard to predict and manage. However, if we take a more holistic approach to improving the resilience of our food systems, just as many of the Challenge communities will, we can address the current needs of our community members while also preparing to tackle future emergencies.

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