Graphic showing how products travel from faculty to store.

MN Impact: Multidisciplinary team explores COVID-19’s effect on food supply chain

April 1, 2021

The Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted food supply chains in the U.S. It is essential for our food system to provide adequate nourishment to the people and support the livelihood of people who supply food. Yet, we witnessed empty shelves in supermarkets, food rotting in fields, economic hardship of farmers and restaurateurs, and workers exposing themselves to health risks to supply us with food. 

Key Activities

multidisciplinary team of researchers and Extension specialists from five universities have partnered to generate science-based knowledge and resources to enhance preparedness of the U.S. food supply chains for future disruptions. 

The team will: 1.) Assess the impact of COVID-19 on farm and food supply chains; 2.) Understand capacities and structural vulnerabilities of regional food systems to support their population needs; 3.) Develop strategies to mitigate current and future disruptions; and 4.) Develop and host training programs to support local and regional supply chain participants. Research will take place in three food and farm regions — the Upper Midwest, Southern Florida and Southern California — which are distinct in sociodemographic, climate and agri-food systems, and should therefore be able to serve as benchmarks for the nation. In addition, the team will deploy two surveys to collect quantitative data on both the supply chain side and the consumer side regarding how behaviors, barriers, opportunities and needs changed during the pandemic. 

Results

Throughout the two-year project period, researchers will collaborate with farmers and business leaders representing all segments of the food supply chain, including producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, food service providers and food banks, to survey those affected by the pandemic; explore behavioral change among consumers; quantify capacity of regional food systems; model changes in the way food flows within and between regions; interview community and business leaders to identify innovative responses to the pandemic; and develop training toolkits for university Cooperative Extension and other professionals positioned to assist food and farm business owners.

A key component of this project involves exploring how smaller, regional food systems have the potential to augment mainstream supply chains to help meet the nation’s food needs. This approach has the added benefit of helping to ensure the economic security of small and mid-scale operations that are vital to the overall wellbeing of U.S. rural communities, the economy and the environment. 

To date, the team has presented one of four webinars they plan to hold over the two-year project, has developed a website to share their findings and has released a supply chain survey for which they have received over 300 responses to date from the Upper Midwest region alone. The nationwide survey was modified from a previous statewide survey by the University of Florida IFAS Extension at the start of the pandemic to target businesses along the food supply chain. Notably, the results of this regional survey helped to guide decision making at local, state and federal levels regarding what aid to provide to various entities. 

Public Value

The goals of the U.S. food system are to provide adequate nourishment to the populace and to support the livelihood of people who supply food. Visible disruptions of the flow of safe and appropriate food to end consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic call for an urgent, renewed look at the resilience of the U.S. food system. In the short term, this work will increase our collective understanding of COVID-19 impacts on our food system, capacities of regional foodsheds, structure of regional food flows, and how people obtain (or become unable to obtain) food during “normal” times and times of disruption. In the long term, this work will help stakeholders make informed decisions about their practices to prepare for future disruptions and show an increased capacity of Cooperative Extension and other professionals to facilitate food system changes. Ultimately, this work aims to help our food systems navigate future disruptions more deftly.