‘What is the future we want to have?': How cities are expanding food access during the pandemic and beyond

During a recent Cities of Service webinar, local leaders came together to discuss strategies for overcoming food insecurities exacerbated by COVID-19


Cars line up for a food giveaway held at Cathedral of the Cross in Center Point, Alabama. Twenty-pound boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables were given away to anyone who needed it. Image: al.com/Joe Songer via TNS

“It’s been alarming how many people are lining up in cars waiting for food,” Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora recently told The Miami Herald.

And this disconcerting lack of food access is anything but an isolated incident in the days since COVID-19 has largely shut down the American economy.

As of the end of April, reports The Brookings Institution, more than one in five households in the United States are food insecure. And the numbers are even worse for households with young children: A nationally representative survey of mothers with children under the age of 12 found that 17.4% reported that since the start of the pandemic, “the children in my household were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.”

That’s an increase of 460% when compared to 2018 USDA data.

Communities supporting hungry families

Cities of Service has been helping communities solve food security challenges for the better part of a decade, and now that we’re facing rates of hunger we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, they’re once again mobilizing their resources.

in a webinar earlier this month, a panel of experts met to discuss how cities across the U.S. are working to meet these needs (full bios along with additional resources can be reviewed below):

  • Ona Balkus, Food Policy Director, Washington D.C.
  • Ben Cares, City Planner, City of Chelsea, Massachusetts
  • Andi Crawford, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Lancing, Michigan
  • Patrick Hain, Financial Empowerment Program Manager, National League of Cities

What follows are some key takeaways for how communities can better ensure equitable food access for all:

#1 Figure out your community’s need

Figuring out the precise needs of your community can be tricky, said Ben Cares. “Its kind of a black box, [especially] when you’re not directly engaging with citizens.”

To help shine a light on the scope of Chelsea, Massachusett’s food security challenges, the city turned to a tried-and-true solution — their 311 system.

“We retrofitted 311 as a call center to run intake and collect data pretty rapidly,” Cares explained.

Washington, D.C. likewise put this resource to work as a “comprehensive needs assessment” tool, said Ona Balkus, encouraging residents to report a variety of pandemic-related concerns, including unemployment and hygiene in addition to food needs.

D.C. leaders are also staying in regular contact with the area’s emergency food providers to “understand gaps that on-the-ground providers are seeing,” said Balkus. “Two times per week seems to be the sweet spot,” she continued.

#2 Use the partnerships you already have

Fortunately for the citizens of D.C., this communication channel wasn’t something that needed to be developed on the fly. Thanks to the establishment of the D.C. Food Policy Council back in 2014, the city already had robust relationships in place with community organizations such as D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table.

“These haven’t been cold calls now that the disaster is here,” said Balkus. “We’ve been meeting for years on food policy.”

In fact, Andi Crawford explained, most of the programs now available to communities across the country would not even be possible without these partnerships. “There’s very little [the City of Lancing does] directly in the food space,” she said. Rather, the city sees itself as more of a coordinator, making sure local organizations have the resources they need to get the job done.

The same is largely true in D.C. as well, where the city is facilitating FEMA reimbursement to pay for programs run by its non-profit partners. These organizations have also been essential in helping people navigate all the available resources.

While the City of Chelsea lacks its own food policy staff, the planning department was able to quickly shift focus by likewise leaning into previously established relationships in the community. It only took about three weeks, Cares said, to implement a program creating 1,000 boxes of food per day with a significant delivery component.

“We luckily knew exactly who to call, so it wasn’t too heavy of a lift,” Cares said.

It ultimately comes down to trust, added Patrick Hain of the National League of Cities. “Local government is a trusted source to direct these partnerships,” he said, pointing to the fact that overall satisfaction with local government response to the pandemic remains high.

And even in communities where mistrust of local leaders is prevalent, “localities are filling that void” by partnering with trusted organizations.

#3 Embrace local

While “some people will never have an interest in growing their own food,” Crawford said, that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the value of a local food supply chain. The pandemic, she continued, is only making the benefits clearer.

Food security advocates have long pointed out “the precariousness and interdependence of our food system.”

And now your average consumer, Crawford said, is likewise beginning to understand that “the fewer hands that touch your food, the fewer opportunities for any type of disease transmission,” a realization she credits with the surge in Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions in her area.

But keeping it local has other benefits as well — not only could it help ensure a steady supply of nutritious staples, it could also anchor a major part of our eventual economic recovery.

“Support for local food systems can offer overlapping benefits,” writes environmental attorney Gavin Smith, “including jobs with good regional distribution, increased community resiliency, improved food security and reduced environmental impacts.”

And this certainly wouldn’t be the first time governments have turned to local food producers to boost economic health.

“The Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners and county staff found their commitment to [North Carolina’s] 10% Campaign” — an initiative that encourages residents to commit 10% of their existing food dollars to locally grown and produced food — “furthered the county’s economic development, health and environmental initiatives,” said retired Cabarrus County Manager John Day back in 2012.

#4 Make a plan for a stronger future

But perhaps most importantly, when we commit to changing our food system, we’re committing to a stronger future for everyone in our communitities.

After the pandemic subsides, said Balkus, “we can’t go back to normal as far as what our food assistance numbers were,” because normal wasn’t coming anywhere close to cutting it.

“We don’t do a great job [as a nation] of addressing food need,” added Cares. The pandemic is merely highlighting an all-too-common and all-too-hidden problem.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t seize the moment now. As we wind down our acute response phase and move on to recovery, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the world we want, not the one we had before.

Review panelist resources and bios:

COS Food Access Panel Hando... by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Sarah is based in North Carolina, where she lives with her son and several rambunctious reptiles. Before taking on her current role with Lexipol, she was the staff writer for the tech website DZone and served as an assistant editor with the rural lifestyle publication GRIT Magazine. Get in touch with her at ssinning@lexipol.com.