Understanding Emergency Food Systems in the era of COVID-19



  • Urban Food Systems

By Rebecca Gyawu & Dr. 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.

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