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Food Policy Councils Demonstrate Critical Roles During COVID-19 Pandemic

New survey highlights food policy council contributions to pandemic response, food system resilience

May 06, 2021

Results from a survey of food policy councils (FPCs) by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF)’s Food Policy Networks (FPN) project found that FPCs have activated their networks to help communities struggling with food insecurity, instigate protections for food workers, and connect producers with new supply chains during the pandemic.

The survey is the first of a two-wave panel study exploring how FPCs have adapted to evolving community needs, connected with and communicated information to vulnerable populations, reimagined their work and partnerships, used racial equity frameworks to guide decisions, and shaped policy to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. FPN researchers collected information from FPCs on their activities during the first 3-6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent crises, including the demonstrations against racial injustice. 198 FPCs responded to the survey from June to September 2020, including 195 FPCs in the United States and three FPCs in tribal nations. The FPN project surveys FPCs about every 18 months to understand their membership, structure, funding, priorities, policy accomplishments and challenges.

The researchers compiled key findings from the survey results into the summary report “Pivoting Policy, Programs and Partnerships: Food Policy Councils' Responses to the Crises of 2020.” To accompany the report, they also developed a graphic highlighting key actions taken by FPCs to respond to the pandemic, and an interactive online dashboard displaying survey data.

“When COVID-19 hit, FPCs were well-positioned to leverage their existing connections with critical food system stakeholders and organize efforts to support food security through both direct services and policy advocacy activities,” said Anne Palmer, director of CLF’s Food Policy Networks project. “Our annual survey provided us with a unique frame of reference for understanding how FPCs adapted to emerging food systems challenges last year, and also gave us an opportunity to document how they contributed to pandemic response efforts in their communities.”

According to the report, key actions that FPCs have taken in response to the pandemic include convening strategic partners, connecting supplies and needs, communicating about available resources, mobilizing volunteers, fundraising, and advocating for policy changes. For example, 82 percent of councils reported that they helped facilitate connections across food systems sectors to match food and farm resources with needs in response to COVID-19. The researchers say that many FPCs have expansive networks and knowledge about their communities’ food systems, which allowed them to react quickly to the pandemic.

The unique conditions triggered by the pandemic required policy change at all levels of government. The survey found that 68 percent of FPCs advocated for local, state, tribal or federal policies related to community food and farm systems concerns due to COVID-19. Policy areas that FPCs were especially active in included supporting emergency food provision, keeping farmers’ markets open, and expanding access to federal food and nutrition assistance. More than half of the councils surveyed also engaged in efforts to advocate for federal relief funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to be allocated to food systems priorities.

Many FPCs also expanded their role to include new functions and areas of focus. For example, 25 percent of FPCs reported that they had formed a new relationship with governmental emergency management services due to the challenging and immediate needs created by the pandemic. While only 32 percent of councils reported working on policies to support food chain workers and essential workers, this represented a significant increase in the number of FPCs engaged in policy advocacy related to workers compared to previous years.

The responses and accomplishments that FPCs achieved as of summer 2020 illustrate FPCs’ crucial role in facilitating connections across the food system, serving as information hubs, and advocating for the policy needs of their communities. While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted FPCs’ value to community food systems, it also presented new challenges to sustaining FPC operations. Many FPCs noted that funding continues to be a significant constraint on their operations.

As the pandemic persists, councils are also beginning to reflect on lessons learned during the pandemic, and the future of their food systems work. To understand that ongoing learning, FPN researchers will be sending out a second FPC survey in early May. The research team hopes to learn how FPC operations may have changed or evolved as work shifts from initial emergency measures to longer-term responses.

“The crises of 2020—including the COVID-19 pandemic and national reckoning with structural racism—not only changed the work of FPCs in 2020, but will likely shape the work of FPCs for years to come. The pandemic highlighted the need for urgent reforms to increase equity and resilience in our food systems. It also reinforced the value of councils’ work,” said Palmer.