CSU joins national team studying pandemic’s effects on local food systems

vegetable stand

Colorado State University food systems researchers are sharing in a $1 million cooperative research agreement to conduct a national study on the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on local food systems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Services Division is partnering with CSU, the University of Kentucky, and Penn State University on the study. CSU lead Dawn Thilmany, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and Becca Jablonski, assistant professor in agricultural and resource economics, will join University of Kentucky co-principal investigators Lilian Brislen and Tim Woods in the effort, along with 16 national trade associations representing various sectors of the food industry.

The study seeks to answer how sectors of local and regional food systems are responding to COVID-19 disruptions, what successful adaptations have been implemented, what obstacles the various arms of local food systems have encountered, and the economic and value-chain impacts.

The closure of schools, universities and restaurants due to measures enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 has taken a considerable toll on local and regional food markets. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimates a loss in farmers markets’ annual sales of 10% to 25%; a 10% loss in farm-to-school sales; and 20% loss in food hubs and restaurant sales due to the coronavirus. Based on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Services’ Local Food Impact calculator, this would lead to an estimated loss of $632 million to $1.18 billion to local economies.

New national platform

Until now, a national platform to bring resources together for local and regional food systems participants has been lacking. The yearlong study will create such a platform by fostering cross-sector collaboration, conducting marketplace assessments, and capturing production and marketing strategies and innovations. The resulting information will be made publicly available in the form of webinars, guides, fact sheets, case studies and resources to help producers have a voice in shaping future USDA response programs.

Dawn Thilmany, CSU professor
Dawn Thilmany, CSU professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

Thilmany described the new national platform as a “community of practice” among producers and organizations outside large agricultural supply chains that support local, direct and differentiated food markets. Some of the major partners include the Farmers Market Coalition; the National Farm to School Network; the National Grocers Association and the James Beard Foundation.

“People think of the conventional agricultural system as this well-oiled machine where everyone knows each other,” Thilmany said. “This is almost the parallel organization for people who participate in a more entrepreneurial version of ag. It’s also strength in numbers and a coordinated effort. Even though COVID is the catalyst, it will be beneficial to create a more unified voice for all of the partners.”

Brislen, executive director of The Food Connection @UK, added that “there are many different players, and local food looks different in different contexts.

“We want to understand the differences and similarities in how local food systems are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. If we’re talking about food hubs that supply local food to institutional dining or niche meat processors, what kinds of impacts are those businesses experiencing and how are they adapting and innovating? How do we, as the research team, capture those innovations as they occur and share them back out to the broader local food community?” Brislen said.

Redirection of products

Though smaller, local and short supply chains are more vulnerable to crises such as the pandemic, they are often nimbler than the big players when it comes to being able to redirect their products, said Woods, University of Kentucky extension professor in agricultural economics.

Thilmany said the team has already heard stories of producers and retailers of local products feeling more appreciated and even optimistic since the pandemic began, perhaps because the American public is changing their buying and eating practices.

“People are finding they can have more direct relationships with their producers, like how they can pivot and get eggs from a local farm if they need to. In turn, such producers are feeling more valued,” she explained. These changing attitudes and habits may be having positive impacts on CSAs and farmers markets, for example.

The end result of the study, in addition to providing a national platform of information, is that the Agricultural Marketing Services will have a conduit of communication throughout the country that will help them design support programs for local food.

For more information about this project, visit localfoodeconomics.com