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Local Food For All During Covid-19

by tori | April 1, 2020

This chaotic time has all of us scrambling to reinforce the basics. For some, basic needs like a stable home and a nourishing meal are never certain. The community organizations that support our neighbors who aren’t adequately served by our food system are relying on their partners to make sure no one is left behind during the crisis.

That includes both people in need of food and local farmers, says Kris Thomas of the Northwest Food Coalition, the regional network of pantries in northwest Michigan. “For our whole community to be food secure, we need to be able to meet our food needs here at home. That’s where local farmers come in.”

Food in most grocery stores and pantries is shipped across the country and dependent on the exploitation of underpaid and unprotected farmworkers. As food security becomes a central concern during the pandemic, organizations are reinforcing the local food system to meet needs.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities is a long-time supporter of local farmers. Taste the Local Difference and 10 Cents a Meal, statewide programs that bring farmers new business, were seeded at Groundwork. With public health concerns related to COVID-19 closing restaurants and schools and farmers markets delaying start dates or cancelling altogether, Groundwork staff knew critical response decisions could mean huge losses for farmers.

“To think that something unforeseen could completely undo the entire restaurant economy of northwest Michigan and endanger all of the local farms that make this place unique – it’s terrifying,” says Meghan McDermott of Groundwork. “We heard from one farm that they stand to lose nearly $55,000 in revenue if the drop in sales were sustained through June 30th.”

Groundwork saw an opportunity to replace some of the income farmers are losing and support neighbors in need. They called in their supporters with the Local Food Relief Fund, a fundraising campaign to help local food pantries purchase locally-grown products from farmers at a fair price. The Fund brought in an astounding $130,597 from community donations in just 7 days.

“I’ve always felt like we were nimble and willing to try new things, but this tested my theory in a very real way. We didn’t have time for the typical project analysis to see if this was a good fit. We just went all in,” says Meghan. “When we decided getting local food to local pantries was our top priority during this crisis, our partners helped us launch this campaign within a week. Strong partnerships are what enabled us to make this happen.”

Similar to the popular Community Supported Agriculture “CSA” model, the fund empowers the Northwest Food Coalition to buy storage crops now, and also pay money upfront for farmers to plant crops for food pantries all season long. Groundwork is helping the Coalition build relationships with farmers. According to Meghan, “Farmers have one way of seeing and talking about things; food pantries have another. We translate and help them connect.”

Pantry clients are eager for fresh, healthful food, and pantries have been ramping up their local food selection with the Northwest Food Coalition’s Farm 2 Neighbor program. “Six years ago, local pantries looked different,” says Kris. “We were hearing from pantry clients that they wanted more fresh food to feed their children and to meet their dietary needs. A woman with diabetes told me, ‘We’re getting all of these noodles. I have a cupboard full of noodles that I can’t eat.’”

“That’s why purchasing food from farms is critical: fresh produce meets every diet,” says Mary Clulo from St. Patrick’s food pantry. “The traditional pantry model is regular pasta or canned fruit in sugar syrup. People on stricter diets for health reasons can’t eat those things.”

Food Rescue helped pantries shift their model to put healthful foods first. Food Rescue picks up food from grocery stores and farms that would otherwise go to waste – things like yogurt with an approaching Sell By date, or crates of produce with one or two bad pieces. Over 100 farmers in the five counties have relationships with Food Rescue, and their produce travels to pantries on Food Rescue trucks.

Over the past few years, these organizations have improved their coordination to meet the needs of food pantry clients and local food producers. Rotary Charities supported their efforts to build an emergency food relief system that works better for everyone in 2018 with a $100,000 grant. Pantries are now able to purchase the foods their clients want by leveraging their collective buying power as the Northwest Food Coalition. The Local Food Relief Fund takes their work to the next level, just as pantries anticipate serving more clients due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

At the height of the 2008 recession, Father Fred saw a three to four hundred percent increase in pantry visits. As unemployment filing claims soar, the potential need is staggering.

“We’re preparing to serve those who have been unemployed for over a month now. We will see an influx – some who have never been to a pantry before. We want to be sure they can find things like fresh fruits and vegetables – not the old fashioned canned goods,” says Mary from St. Patrick’s. “Hopefully people are comfortable with the products that we have – they’re safe, pure and right from their neighboring farmers.”

The emergency food relief system has the partnerships in place to respond to the need.

“During COVID-19 we’re working harder. The need is growing. We’re distributing a lot more food to these pantries because of our ability to work and grow together,” says Food Rescue’s Taylor Moore. “Our community showed up for the Local Food Relief Fund. And we’ve built these relationships that help us work together. We want everyone in the five counties to be fed.”