Food systems experts to study Denver supply chain impacts from COVID-19

school classroom

Social distancing measures, including shutdowns of schools and restaurants during COVID-19, have caused major shifts in how American municipalities, institutions and families get their food. This new reality is very much on the minds of food systems researchers at Colorado State University, who for the last three years have been conducting a study on food policy decisions in the city and county of Denver.

Building on their ongoing work in Denver, CSU food and agriculture experts are turning their attention to how the pandemic has forced rapid changes in food-procurement practices, and what new insights can be gained from those changes.

A multidisciplinary team led by Becca Jablonski, assistant professor and CSU Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, has been awarded a one-year, $100,000 supplement to an existing research grant from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research. The original grant award has supported a $2 million project under the “Tipping Points” program in which CSU researchers have been building a computational model of Denver’s current food system. The goal of the original work was, and still is, to give city and county officials science-based insights into different food purchasing scenarios and the tradeoffs associated with each.

Localized supply chains

For the follow-up study, the researchers will use their developed model to investigate social, economic and environmental effects of a shift to more localized food procurement. They will investigate impacts on Colorado producers resulting from increased local demand related to supply chain disruptions during COVID-related closures.

“We are using our model to determine what happens when there is a breakdown of national and global supply chains and suddenly cities like Denver have to depend on local supply chains,” Jablonski said. “For example, if there are higher prices, these will impact consumers negatively – but there may be positive impacts for some Colorado farmers and ranchers.”

School meal programs

Another major portion of the supplemental study, led by Rebecca Cleary, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, will examine shifts in school-based emergency food service provisions resulting from COVID-19 shutdowns.

When schools closed, Colorado districts, along with others across the country, scrambled to offer takeaway meals to students and families and find options to replace routine school meal programs for low-income students. In Colorado, those takeaway meals were funded through the state’s Summer Food Service Program, at greater cost than the normal national school lunch and breakfast programs. Another emergency program, the Pandemic-EBT program, offers households with children receiving subsidized school meals a dollar-amount equivalent to the federal meal reimbursement rate. The researchers will investigate the cost-effectiveness of some of these policies in helping reduce food insecurity.

“It’s hard in an emergency situation, because we don’t want people to go hungry,” Jablonski said. “But we have a chance now to do this research and provide insight into what might be more efficient and effective in the future.”

To answer questions about how the emergency food service provisions have fared in Denver, the researchers will collect survey data from low-income households with school-aged children, using a new, validated online survey instrument developed by Laura Bellows, associate professor in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The survey mimics the USDA Economic Research Services’ FoodAPS data collection protocol.

Building on Tipping Points progress

The original Tipping Points work was aimed at understanding how urban food policies impact farmers, ranchers, regional communities and economies. It includes a detailed analysis of supply chains for four key commodities across the state: potatoes, wheat, beef, and peaches. How these supply chains are affected by shifts in emergency food provision and other disruptions will provide insights into how decisions can be made more efficiently in the future, should another major event like this pandemic arise.

The funded researchers first got together several years ago as the Rural Wealth Creation team, created by the CSU Office of the Vice President for Research Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships program. It includes researchers from nearly every college on campus, with expertise in food systems, energy, ecological modeling, health, computer science, agricultural economics and rangeland systems.

Many members of the Rural Wealth Creation team also serve on the CSU Task Force on Colorado Food Supply, convened in the wake of the pandemic. Faculty and Extension specialists serving on the task force are charged with rapid-response research on food supply chains, workers and safety.