Farm to Institution New England (FINE)
May 2021 Impact Assessment II
Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?
COVID-19 has caused both intense disruption and incredible adaptation within institutional food systems and across farm to institution supply chains. At the beginning of the pandemic, many institutions were forced to shift their food service models from residential dining and cafeteria models to mostly, if not all, grab n’ go and delivery. These shifts resulted in changes in packaging, ingredient sourcing, software and technology used, labor requirements, and food safety requirements.
College students who were on campus throughout the pandemic primarily obtained food at grab n’ go pick up locations or had food delivered to their on campus housing. For health care facilities, visitor restrictions led to the closure of public cafeterias but new food outlets such as on-site retail outlets or commissary spaces where prepared meals were offered became more common for staff and faculty to access food. For K-12 schools, various models for delivery, pickup, and supplemental food programs were adopted across the country. In many cases, to go meals were more likely to be served at room temperature and in some cases were meant to cover multiple days.
Across institutional sectors, these shifts have largely meant less flexibility and choice for eaters. A common example can be seen in the reduction or removal of salad bars, which have long been seen as a key opportunity for offering local, fresh produce and a tool for giving individuals (especially youth) autonomy over their food choices. This lack of choice can be seen perhaps most evidently in the corrections sector where some facilities have closed the main chow halls for serving and eating foods. Instead, incarcerated individuals are eating more meals in their individual cells. This change in food culture requires more disposable packaging, equipment for transporting food trays to the cells, and the impact has been colder food or in some cases, less meals per day.
The shift to grab n’ go has also meant increased packaging and foodware container waste. Conflicting health info about the safety of reusable containers, combined with a lack of staff to wash and manage reusable container programs meant that many institutions paused their reusable container programs and switched to single use. As a result, more plastics, styrofoam, paper, and compostables entered the waste stream, along with the toxins that many of these containers include. Fortunately, it appears that many institutions, such as colleges, intend to restart their reusable programs in the fall.
Surveys across K-12 schools, colleges, and health care facilities showed that respondents largely saw a drop in sales as well as significant staffing cuts. In many cases, reduced staff has meant less capacity to procure, process, and serve local foods. As institutional dining recovers from the pandemic, many institutions have found it difficult to meet growing labor needs. Anecdotally, dining directors share that former staff have moved into different industries. In more rural areas, foodworkers may have moved to areas offering more options for employment. It appears that this labor shortage will continue and may affect institutions’ efforts to source locally. However, some stakeholders also emphasized that where there were robust local food programs already in place, institutions saw less disruption and faced less difficulty securing items that were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic, such as meat.
Some of the changes above seem to be continuing through and potentially past recovery stages. These changes include: reduction in menu choices, consolidation of dining options and locations, grab and go dining options, labor shortages and shifts, focus on local processing options, technological solutions, resource and info-sharing. There also appears to be an increased recognition of the value of being able to dine together, and how important that is for relationship-building, community-building, and individual health.
With all of these challenges and adaptations, many stakeholders have expressed a renewed focus on local food moving forward, recognizing that when national supply chains were disrupted, it was their local suppliers who were able to step in and fill a need. Stakeholders also share that while volume was down, institutions had the opportunity to work with farmers and producers they might not have been able to work with in the past including small farms, immigrant and refugee farms, and farms owned by Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The long-term opportunity to grow these relationships will be seen over the coming year as institutions begin to return to pre-COVID volumes.
COVID-19 exacerbated already existing inequities in the food system and shone a light on issues around food security, food access, and food sovereignty in a way that has pushed institutions and farm to institution stakeholders to think more critically about their role in creating an equitable and just food system. The simultaneous crisis of COVID-19 and racial injustice in the United States has sparked new consciousness in the sector about how to prioritize racial justice and equity in farm to institution procurement, education, gardens, and community partnerships.
Stakeholders are hopeful that long term policy shifts will support an increase in local and community-based food systems. This includes policy to support universal free meals for K-12 schools; additional reimbursements for equitably made and locally sourced food; and funding for local food processing and infrastructure.
What types of innovations, pivots, or adaptations have proven to be the most impactful or important for your stakeholders or sector?
Those communities with robust partnerships and community food ecosystems already in place prior to the pandemic were able to pivot quickly and continue to feed people in an equitable and sustainable manner. While these partnerships have impacted institutional procurement, they have also expanded the thinking around the role institutions play in their communities more broadly. Institutions have adopted innovative new programs including food share (CSA) programs, retail pop-ups featuring local food, on-site farmers markets or vouchers for off-site markets, cross-sectoral supply chains (e.g., college dining services preparing meals for hospital staff), and more. These programs often include stakeholders who might not previously have been considered direct farm to institution stakeholders but have become critical partners over the last year and a half. This includes urban farms and gardens, food policy councils, emergency food entities, gleaners, and others.
In some instances resiliency depended on a loosening of certain policies that otherwise restricted innovation and adaptation. For example, K-12 schools were only able to develop new food delivery systems and address food insecurity in their communities when waivers were granted and eligibility was expanded. Quicker response and greater understanding by policy-makers of when and how to make necessary changes will build greater resiliency into the food system.
Investments in processing and food storage also increased stakeholders’ ability to find new markets, locate food needs and deliver, and avoid food waste. For example, new fish processing facilities, cold storage and transport, and increased cooperation between fishermen and processors and others allowed catches to be preserved and distributed as value added products or frozen so that more time was available to get the fish to markets.
Accessing available technology and tech-reliant companies also helped institutions respond to the pandemic. For example, many colleges partnered with companies such as Uber, GrubHub, and Ozzi to pivot to grab and go dining.
Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience during the pandemic?
Stakeholders in the farm to institution sector have shown incredible resilience over the last year as they quickly identified both short and long term adaptations to keep their constituents fed during the pandemic. By creating or leaning on community partnerships, they created new supply chains and infrastructure to redirect food to those who rely on institutions for meals every day. The pandemic exacerbated the existing racial injustice in our country and our food system and many stakeholders have chosen to rebuild their programs and advocate for policy with a racial justice lens. Many funding organizations had DEI commitments prior to 2020, but the pandemic challenged (some) to make changes to their funding process. For example, several funding sources in the northeast US restructured themselves into The New England Grassroots Environment Fund, to relieve COVID-19 disruption and with a stated focus on racial equity. In another example, the USDA AMS has recently prioritized outreach to BIPOC, rural and other underserved communities, to encourage application and reviewer participation in their 2021 LAMP grants.
For many, the transition to virtual communication has created increased access to and transparency of food systems content (e.g. wider audience for food system conferences, producer trainings, material/meetings being recorded and made available). Many stakeholders expressed that shifting to virtual communication platforms has allowed them to expand their networks and access materials and partnerships that would have otherwise been unavailable. That being said, the transition to remote learning and communications has created and exacerbated existing inequities around access to technology which is an ongoing challenge that stakeholders are still addressing.
What data did your sector find most useful in navigating pandemic disruptions? Please share any survey findings, sales data, or other data/metrics related work that you, your partners or stakeholders conducted during the pandemic.
FTI stakeholders relied on resources and data to help them rebuild their supply chains, locate food in their community, and identify new partners to keep feeding their constituents. Matchmaking spreadsheets and tools were used in various communities to identify surplus and need for food, labor, storage, and trucking. Stakeholders also relied on resources to understand options around sustainable and safe packaging, food safety requirements, and health and wellness for staff.
There is a growing body of research around the impact COVID has had on food security, especially on college students who are already disproportionately impacted by food insecurity. Recently published research on prison food and food access also shows the inequities that incarcerated individuals face around food.
Nonprofits, policy makers, and other support agencies have looked to data on sales and labor impact. A national survey of college dining services sent out in May 2021 by Dennison College researchers showed that respondents were largely seeing negative impacts to both early on in the pandemic, however the response rate was too low to extrapolate more broadly. Research done by Farm to Institution New England, University of Vermont, and Health Care Without Harm in late 2020 looked at the role of institutions as anchors in their communities and how related programs contributed to more resiliency during COVID-19.
Are there groups or sub-sections of your sector that are currently experiencing disproportionate negative impacts from pandemic-disruptions? Are there groups or sub-sectors that face disproportionate challenges in recovering or re-establishing operations as pandemic-disruptions dissipate?
Many individuals rely on institutions for at least one meal per day and factors such as income, race, and geographic location often influence that need. When schools and colleges transitioned to virtual learning and correctional facilities went into serious lockdowns for maintaining isolation, those already facing food insecurity were more likely to be negatively impacted.
Farmers, fishers, and other food producers who relied on institutional sales for their livelihood had to adapt when institutions closed to find new markets for sales. Switching from wholesale to retail sales requires different skills, tools, and resources. It is unclear what the long term impact of these transitions will be and whether farmers will continue to work with direct to consumer markets or return to their wholesale customers.
Our current food system relies heavily on many immigrant and undocumented workers. During the pandemic those workers were disproportionately affected by having to work harder, longer, with inadequate safety equipment, and many without being allowed to take sick leave. Immigrant workers were deemed essential during the pandemic but were often not offered ethical workplace care. Similar trends can be seen across the meat processing industry.
Incarcerated individuals are negatively impacted by newly enforced systems such as quarantining 24/7 in their individual cells creating more intense forms of isolation and therefore having greater mental health effects. Additionally, the quantity and quality of food in most facilities decreased making it more difficult for those who got COVID-19 while incarcerated to recover as quickly as those who are not incarcerated.
How have questions of equity, access, diversity and inclusion shaped your sector in the past year, and what efforts (if any) are in place moving forward? Please provide as many specific examples as you are able.
Thanks in large part to the work of community organizers, educators, and leaders from Black, Indigenous and other Communities of Color our sector experienced a deeper awakening for restorative racial justice in white led organizations. There is growing recognition among public institutions that institutional racism is a core framework impeding the advancement of the goals of food justice. We see this in the multiple correlations between communities that reside in food apartheid areas and increased incarceration rates, decreased healthcare access, and elevated COVID-19 infection and death rates.
At a basic level, institutional dining operations are increasingly adopting benchmarks for diversity within their supplier base, a goal which is also reflected in our nationally harmonized metrics suite. However, procurement is not sufficient to address centuries long inequity and injustice in the US agro-food system. Our network of partners continues to explore ways to develop and implement meaningful and impactful metrics to help build bridges and shift market power to BIPOC farmers and food producers. There are also efforts to develop means to assess JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) indicators across the geographic and social distribution of Farm to Institution efforts. Namely, the health, nutrition, social, and economic benefits of Farm to Institution programs should be accessible to all communities regardless of their property tax revenue or demographic makeup. The work of dismantling food apartheid is complex and long term, and our network welcomes the challenge.
Looking to the 2021 season, what issues are top of mind for your stakeholders or your sector? Are there areas where cross-sector technical assistance (e.g. choosing the right online platform, partnering with emergency food agencies) would be timely for your sector?
- Building community partnerships to create resilience in future crisis
- Support for Black, Indigenous, and Farmers of Color and historically disadvantaged producers
- Tracking and technology systems to make tracking local, sustainable, equitable food easier
- Managing labor shortages up and down the supply chain
- Budget cuts, financial uncertainty for institutions coupled with rising prices of food.
- Supporting food service directors as they navigate unknowns (including temporary waivers/policy).
- Addressing food insecurity and building long term solutions outside the emergency food system
- Building on integrated emergency feeding programs
- Policy changes/incentives to support institutions in more easily accessing local, good food (e.g., around bid process, pay delays, universal school meal policies, etc.)
- Support for direct purchasing
- Living working conditions for all food workers
- More listening sessions to hear from community members
- TA for certification processes/onboarding
- Increased transparency in supply chains to improve cooperation and response time both during and outside of crises
- Cataloging or some system of identification of available food system-related resources and support for redeploying them in emergencies (e.g., available living/dining spaces and large capacity kitchens at colleges, school buses as food transport options)
- Interagency cooperation to better manage both aquatic and terrestrial food production and distribution.