Researchers, USDA, and Local Food Networks Explore Impact of COVID-19 on Local and Regional Food Systems

By: Diana Broadaway, Network Coordinator       Posted On: July 30, 2021

In the late spring of 2020, FMC joined a collaborative project led by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the University of Kentucky, which included 16 other local food system communities of practice and network leaders. The year-long “Local Food Systems Response to COVID” project was designed both to spotlight the work done by these organizations to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on their sectors and to support local food systems advocates and practitioners in the various fields represented, including: farm to institution, farm to school, CSAs, Indigenous food and agriculture, agritourism, local seafood, specialty crops, state departments of agriculture, sustainable agriculture, restaurants, food hubs, commercial kitchens, small meat processors, independent grocers, and non-commodity grains.

Project Partners

This collaboration of 17 “Community of Practice Coordinating Organizations” (CoPCOs), each of whom serve as technical assistance providers within their sectors, include the CSA Innovation Network, Center for Crop Diversification, Farm to Institution New England (FINE), Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), the James Beard Foundation, NAFDMA International Agritourism Association, Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Local Catch Network, National Coop Grocers, NASDA Foundation, National Grocers Association Foundation, National Farm to School Network, Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, Wallace Center, The Food Corridor, WSU Breadlab, and the Farmers Market Coalition. In cooperation with USDA AMS, the 3 research partners coordinating resource development and communication among CoPCO partners were Colorado State University, the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State University, and University of Kentucky.

Resource Hub, Webinars, and Consumer Food Insights

A focal point of this project was resource collection and development. FMC contributed materials to a shared Resource Hub, which includes an extensive library of previously developed toolkits, trainings, webinars, reports, articles, etc. related to the impact of COVID-19 on local and regional food systems, as well as new resources created specifically for this project. In addition to resources directed toward specific areas of our food system, this project leveraged the expertise and experience of the researchers and practitioners involved to develop a wider set of materials with a broader focus. The Consumer Food Insights Survey and Webinar Series both highlight the collective work being done in local and regional food systems across the country and how seemingly disparate networks of folks can work together to strengthen and expand the market and knowledge around local food.

The Consumer Food Insights work led by Colorado State University looked at changing consumer behaviors around local and regionally sourced food during the pandemic, providing analysis on trends in online food shopping, local food perceptions, food expenditures, market channels, and food security.

The 8 webinars produced for this project explored a variety of topics impacting not only the partners and networks connected to this project, but anyone interested in or working to create healthier, more resilient food systems. Topics explored in this series included formal and informal cooperative development, innovations in state policy, emergency and charity food operations, online marketing platforms, customer retention, and marketing innovations focused around consumers eating at home. These webinars incorporated the knowledge of project partners, researchers, and other food system leaders working both within and outside of these networks. 

Boise Farmers Market (photo by Guy Hand)

Farmers Market Impact Assessments, Innovation Briefs, and Case Study

As a partner in this project, FMC worked with researchers and AMS to create a set of new resources highlighting the work of farmers market operators in response to COVID, exploring ideas for how our sector can build capacity over the long term and help more markets of varying size and type gain access to the resources they need to withstand future crises. FMC authored two impact assessments for this project focused on the state of farmers markets in August 2020 and then again in May 2021. The goal of our assessments was to thoroughly outline the experience of farmers markets of all types in response to COVID, including operational innovations and adaptations, increases and reductions in activity (market sales, SNAP sales, staffing and volunteers, funding, vendor participation, etc.), state and local policy wins and challenges, and technical assistance needs. 

Analysis of the survey FMC offered to market operators in Summer of 2020 and additional reporting from market leaders across the country helped shape the innovation briefs and case study FMC contributed to this project. Our innovation briefs, meant to illustrate best practices and replicable approaches for farmers markets in response to crises like COVID-19, feature Alternative Farmers Market Models such as drive-thru, limited entry, and curbside pickup markets, as well as new approaches and technology related to Estimating Farmers Market Visitors by Counting Mobile Phone Pings. The “ping counter” project and related brief were developed in partnership with FRESHFARM in Washington, DC. Both of these briefs outline practices which may be adaptable to other markets now or in the future and which showcase creative solutions to challenges which many markets have faced over the past year and a half.

COVID-19 highlighted the importance of managing market resources and drew attention to the significance of planning ahead for periods of reduced revenue and increased expenses. According to the USDA-NASS 2019 Farmers Market Manager Survey, only 48% of U.S. markets have an annual operating budget. Members of FMC’s flagship market community of practice decided to explore this topic further, inspiring what would become the “Using Budgets To Help Farmers Markets Adapt To COVID-19” case study created in partnership with USDA AMS. Three flagship market leaders participated in interviews conducted by AMS discussing the importance of financial planning and establishing a budgeting process to more accurately track profit and loss over time. The written study spotlights two of these organizations – Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association and Boulder County Farmers Markets. The interviews and accompanying written study stress a simple approach, to begin by tracking expenses and using that data to assist with strategic planning in terms of mission deliverables, goal-setting, and long-term disaster preparedness. 

Looking Ahead

The synergistic approach of this project connected FMC to a diverse group of food system actors, inspiring new cross-sector collaborations, deeper network engagement, and offering a more holistic view of the various marketing channels at work within local and regional food systems. The goal of this project was not only to help capture the impact of COVID-19 on producers, consumers, supply chains, and other networks via data and resource collection but also for researchers and AMS to learn more about how these networks operate and interact with one another. As this project evolved, the CoPCOs, research partners, and the USDA began to think more broadly about how we could build on this work, bring more voices to the table, streamline data collection across different sectors, and build stronger, more inclusive networks. 

In assessing the current state of the farmers market sector, FMC posits that we must rethink the term “resilience.” As stated in our May 2021 impact assessment, it may be helpful to talk about resilience in community food systems as an ongoing process which involves ebb and flow, where conditions of “recovery” and “rebuilding” will inevitably be influenced by outside factors and where continued progress requires funding and policy support at all levels. The Local Food Systems Response to COVID project provided FMC with an opportunity to highlight the agility, adaptability, and innovative quality of farmers markets while also providing a platform to talk about some of these larger concerns. The project also afforded FMC access to an expanded network of food system partners with valuable collective knowledge and experience. As FMC continues to explore how best to support farmers markets and market operators, it is important for us to think outside our sector, consider how markets can benefit from this shared expertise, and how these types of collaborations may help to expand the role of farmers markets and other direct to consumer outlets within local and regional food systems.