Understanding Emergency Food Systems in the era of COVID-19

By Rebecca Gyawu & John Reich

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the nation were already facing many hardships, including food and nutritional insecurity. The pandemic is worsening these hardships and making more people food insecure as unemployment increases, resulting in more people relying on emergency food systems.

At FFAR, we wondered how best to address the root causes of food and nutritional insecurity, rather than simply reacting to them. The challenge is that numerous funders and community organizations across the country are doing the hard work of addressing food and nutritional insecurity in communities – and they have been doing so for decades. While progress has been made, why do these problems still exist?

It is partly because the problem is complex. It is hard to “solve” food and nutritional insecurities when these problems are intertwined with so many other issues, including employment, health, education, transportation, food access – just to name a few.

FFAR builds public-private partnerships to fund food and agriculture challenges. As a scientific research funder, we saw an opportunity to increase our understanding of the food system, and the relationships within that system, to pinpoint high-impact investment areas. With scarce resources to address food and nutritional insecurity, a better understanding of which investments will lead to the most positive change could make a world of difference to current and future populations. Hence, we created the Tipping Points Program.

LEVERAGING FFAR-FUNDED RESEARCH

The five Tipping Points projects span different dimensions of the food system. The program funds five projects in communities across the US to optimize investments in low-income communities and understand how local policies impact the local food system and regional farmers. While the researchers have different foci and serve diverse communities, they all engage with community organizations and the communities themselves to propel the development of data-driven models. The models aim to understand which investments are going to be the most impactful, and the positive and negative consequences of those investments. Two years into the program, some of the projects are discovering that investments outside the traditional food and nutritional security sector may have the most impact. In the future, we hope that the insights from these models can lead to more equitable, just and sustainable food systems.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to understand the food system as a whole to ensure vulnerable populations are not left behind as more people are relying on the emergency food system, taxing an already stretched system. Given our researchers’ relationships within their communities and their appreciation for the interconnectedness of the food systems, FFAR sees an opportunity to understand how the emergency food system is reacting to this crisis, and where investments can help the most vulnerable. To capture this information, FFAR is providing additional support – about $100,000 to each project. Many of the Tipping Points researchers are learning from each other as well as collaborating with Feeding America to use their food insecurity data. As we move forward, we are exploring ways for our grantees to communicate the lessons they are learning to organizations fighting hunger and to also learn from others in this field.

Overcoming Water Scarcity

Overcoming Water Scarcity

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Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s accessible freshwater. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area addressed water use efficiency in agriculture by developing water conservation and reuse technologies, improving crop and livestock breeds, creating improved agronomic practices, increasing the social and economic tractability of conservation practices and enhancing the efficacy of Extension services.

FFAR’s Sustainable Water Management Challenge Area builds on earlier work to increase water availability and water efficiency for agricultural use, reduces agricultural water pollution and develops water reuse technologies.

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms Challenge Area increased soil health by building knowledge, fueling innovation, and enabling adoption of existing or new innovative practices that improve soil health.

The Soil Health Challenge Area advances existing research and identifies linkages between farm productivity and soil health, while also addressing barriers to the adoption of soil health practices.

Protein Challenge

Protein Challenge

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Protein Challenge Area sought to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of diverse proteins.

The Advance Animal Systems challenge area supports sustainable animal production through environmentally sound productions practices and advancement in animal health and welfare. Additionally, the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area develops non-traditional crops, including plant-based proteins, and creates new economic opportunities for conventional crops to increase future crop diversity and farm profitability.

Food Waste and Loss

Food Waste and Loss

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About 40 percent of food in the US, or $161 billion each year, is lost or wasted. FFAR’s 2016-2018 Food and Waste Loss Challenge Area addressed the social, economic and environmental impacts from food waste and loss through research that developed of novel uses for agricultural waste, improved storage and distribution, supported tracking and monitoring, minimized spoilage through pre- and post-harvest innovations and changed behaviors to reduce food waste

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area addresses food waste and loss and supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.

Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability

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Supporting innovation is necessary for sustainable results. Over the last 50 years, farmers have tripled global food production thanks to agricultural innovations. Forging the Innovation Pathway to Sustainability was a 2016-2018 Challenge Area that focused on understanding the barriers and processes that prevented the adoption of technology and research results into sustainable practices.

Urban Food Systems

Urban Food Systems

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The 2016-2018 Urban Food Systems Challenge Area addressed feeding urban populations through urban and peri-urban agriculture and augmenting the capabilities of our current food system.

The Urban Food Systems Challenge Area continues this work and enhances our ability to feed urban populations.

Making My Plate Your Plate

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FFAR’s 2016-2018 Making My Plate Your Plate Challenge Area focused on helping Americans meet the USDA 2015 Dietary Guideline recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption, including research to both produce and provide access to nutritious fruits and vegetables.

FFAR’s current Health-Agriculture Nexus Challenge Area supports innovative, systems-level approaches to reduce food and nutritional insecurity and improve human health in the US and globally.