August 2020 Impact Assessment
Impacts of COVID-19
Food systems in Indigenous communities were already struggling with pre-existing barriers in terms of market opportunities and access to processing facilities prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated these existing tensions in many respects. Transportation and distribution chains have slowed or been disrupted, processing facilities are backed up and producers are unable to access them until late 2021 at the earliest, and local fruit/vegetable growers closer to large population centers struggled to find markets during restaurant closures. Experts did note one possible positive: because this crisis has so thoroughly highlighted existing issues, Tribal governments have expanded or fast-tracked agricultural improvement opportunities. While Tribal Nations’ investment in agriculture has been steadily increasing over the past several decades, especially as federal policies have acknowledged and attempted to address some of the specific needs and challenges Native producers have, this crisis has pushed Tribally driven solutions even more to the forefront and expedited efforts to improve food systems work. Across multiple regions, there is investment in Tribally owned and operated processing facilities and other similar infrastructure components.
Obstacles to Sector Response
American Indian and Alaska Native populations have been seriously impacted by the pandemic, often at higher rates per capita than the rest of the United States population, so COVID-19 itself represents the most significant impediment to Tribal food systems’ response—the illness impacts labor availability, community connection and engagement especially in direct marketing, and impacts to transportation and delivery sectors impacts the ability to engage with larger markets. Larger markets for food products—like those provided by Tribally owned enterprises, particularly hotels and other tourist-dollar-driven enterprises—have been impacted as well.
Successful Marketing Adaptations in Response to COVID-19
As direct sales were immediately impacted, farms and farmers started shifting to CSA and/or all-online models using Square, Shopify, or similar platforms to access consumers directly and safely. Some places are utilizing a drive-up window service model for grocery store pickup and prioritizing service to elders and community members in need. As Tribes have closed borders to limit the spread of COVID-19 and keep citizens safe, Tribal communities have expanded or implemented community and home gardening efforts on a larger scale.
Economic Impact on Sector
Many businesses are seeing losses or reduced business activity across sectors. There has been something of an increase in online ordering and customers for small farm businesses that have been able to shift to online ordering/delivery models. Some small-scale producers—farmers especially—have been able to develop this into an opportunity for some growth during this time, which is encouraging, but there have been big impacts to the ranch and fish sectors of Indian Country agriculture. Cold storage for food products is a big new cost expense, whether that’s physical storage like a freezer or walk-in cooler in a warehouse environment, or a refrigerated delivery truck, or packaging that keeps food cool in transit for those businesses that are able to ship online. Additional packaging and shipping have added new expenses. PPE and cleaning/sanitizing equipment also represent additional costs as well as hazard pay for essential employees.
Impact on Sector Members
Other than the disparate impact of this illness on Tribal communities as a whole as discussed above, both ranching and fishing seem to have borne a significant amount of the impact so far. Farms have also been impacted, but because local market opportunities for fresh fruits and vegetables were already operating on limited or hyperlocal models, farming has taken less of a direct immediate impact. This isn’t to say farms haven’t been impacted, but they seem to have been more able to shift to direct-to-consumer models because of the nature of their products. Fishing has been significantly impacted by dock closures. It’s also difficult to package and transport meat and fish products without additional and costly packaging and delivery mechanisms that a lot of ranchers and fishermen were not equipped to implement immediately. Several stakeholders cited impact to fishing in their area as severe—many of those fishermen sold direct to restaurants that closed or scaled back operations significantly and are buying less product, or were involved in export markets that have also been impacted negatively.
Desired Data and Technical Assistance
More accurate loss of sales/market to see the direct impacts to producers and other data that tells the story of the importance of investing in local food infrastructure, food insecurity data from federal food assistance programs and overall in Native Communities.
More farm infrastructure technical assistance would be helpful, particularly increased support through the existing technical assistance programs that Indian Country already has, such as the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP), which is chronically underfunded and unable to truly support Indian Country’s nearly 80,000 producers in the way it could with more financial support. More than technical assistance, funding and infrastructure needs are probably the bigger needs identified by our stakeholders, as well as debt relief in some form and additional credit for operating capital.
In addition to supporting food production in Indian Country, our organization also looks at food assistance and food security efforts. As more and more people have been out of work during pandemic response, reliance on food assistance and food distribution programming has been increasing.
Contact Information for American Indian and Alaska Native:
Erin Parker firstname.lastname@example.org