Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The work cities do to build resilience before, during or after a crisis like a pandemic or natural disaster can lay the foundation for sustained access to quality, nutritious food.
One of the early consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was a series of supply chain disruptions that left many cities around the world struggling to ensure a sufficient food supply. According to the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research, about 38% of U.S. adults experienced an increase in food insecurity between mid-March 2020 and June 2020.
Food insecurity has been a long-term problem in the U.S. (see this data visualization that shows the level of food insecurity in select American cities from 2011 to 2021). But in the pandemic’s wake, local leaders and policy experts have asked how cities can prepare for another public health crisis, conflict or catastrophic weather event that could disrupt access to food.
To help answer that question, the Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence and the Center for a Livable Future, both at Johns Hopkins University, worked with five U.S. cities (Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Denver; Moorhead, Minnesota; and Orlando, Florida) to produce the Food System Resilience Planning Guide. The guide aims to help cities evaluate and make their food systems more resilient, starting where food is grown to how it is distributed, sold, consumed, recovered and/or wasted.
Resilient food systems are not only strong enough to withstand and recover from crises, they also create more fresh, healthy food choices and a sustainable, equitable way of putting food on the table even if a disaster never occurs. But actions taken to build resilience before, during or after a crisis can help create a better food system than the one we have today.
Drawing on cities’ experiences and expertise in the guide, here are five steps cities can take right now to promote more resilient food systems:
1. Start talking!
Communities likely have work supporting food system resilience already underway but flying under the radar. With more communication about food system resilience and why it is important, it’s easier for a variety of stakeholders to see “what’s in it for me” and get involved and build relationships.
Conversations that begin around food-related disaster preparedness also support local government goals and set cities up for food resilience.
2. Identify key partners and roles
Cities should generate or expand an existing list of key players in their local food system—organizations, businesses and other leaders who are important partners in improving food system resilience. The list should include those who were involved in a recent response effort and who weren’t involved but should have been. City leaders should then match those resources to a list of food security threats so they can see who best can help with various incidents.
For cities that don’t already have a Food Policy Council or other network through which food system actors interact, local leaders should convene at least one meeting where stakeholders can discuss resilience issues and start building relationships (learn more here).
3. Diagnose threats
Many cities have already identified numerous threats that may impact their jurisdiction—flooding, sea level rise, unrest. But few have considered how these threats impact food systems. Officials should ask:
- How hazardous events might affect economic and physical food access.
- How the hazards might affect food availability. Will they disrupt the supply chain, close distribution facilities or harm workers?
- How these events might affect food acceptability, whether that’s food safety, nutritional quality, cultural or religious appropriateness.
The Food System Resilience Planning Guide features tools that allow users to collate a variety of threats, assign a likelihood score and evaluate vulnerabilities and assets. This kind of detailed diagnostics helps cities develop corresponding strategies to anticipate a full range of threats.
For example in Hawaíi, 80-90% of all food consumed in the state comes by ship to Honolulu Harbor. A hurricane or other disruption to the harbor would have massive consequences, particularly to outlying islands with fewer warehouses. One way to address this key vulnerability is for local governments to work with the private sector to increase food storage with emergency food supplies on neighboring islands.
4. Consider how historic and current inequities weaken food systems.
Using the tools and equity checks in the guide, cities can be intentional in including communities of color that are typically more affected by food insecurity. By mapping out where food insecurity intersects with race, ethnicity and age, city leaders can see how various types of disruptions could affect these residents and focus on what they can do now to mitigate risks.
For example, cities should revise any permitting policies that require fixed, congregate feeding locations because often older people who don’t have transportation or can’t leave their homes won’t be able to get to a central location, especially in an emergency. In Detroit, more than 80 community organizations had enough food to serve over 6 million meals to the food insecure in the last two years thanks to a waste recovery project that uses an Uber-like app program to connect volunteer drivers with food waste donors and recipients.
5. Work with community, not for community
Resilience work addresses underlying structural and systemic injustices, so city officials must look for ways to support, develop and include leaders from marginalized communities in food policy conversations.
A systemic approach to food system resilience means centering policies and practices on those directly affected—particularly those who experience inequities or live in disproportionately impacted communities. It calls for co-creating new opportunities for learning and policymaking.
For example, Austin, Texas, has included nonprofits, businesses, educators, community organizations, leaders and residents in the city’s first-ever Food Plan designed to deliver a more equitable, sustainable and resilient food system. In the process, the city created a network of relationships committed to building something better for future generations.
Across cultures and around the world, food holds so much meaning. That’s what makes food system resilience work highly relevant, rewarding and never ending. Access to quality, nutritious food is not only fundamental to human existence, it is a strong driver of economic growth and job creation. Using these five steps, communities can prepare for the worst, while building resilient food systems that meet the needs of everyone.
Meg Burke is a research and program manager with Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University.
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