Stories / Impact

Why Local Food Systems Matter Now More Than Ever

JBF is part of the Local Regional Food System response to COVID-19

Megan Storms

January 27, 2021


Tomatoes on the vine Clay Williams
Photo: Clay Williams

Last May, the James Beard Foundation joined a group of 17 organizations as part of “Local Food Systems Response to COVID, Building Better Beyond,” a project created by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and a research team led by the University of Kentucky, Colorado State University, and Penn State University. The project’s goal is to bring together communities in Local Regional Food Systems (LRFS) to support the communities’ existing efforts, share information, develop relationships, and conduct research to foster long term resilience.

COVID-19 has impacted all levels of the food system from production to processing to retail sales. This project aims to highlight the intersections of the challenges facing all sectors of the food system, and to help generate solutions and innovations among the member organizations.

As part of this ongoing partnership, JBF helped populate and develop resources for an online resource hub. The hub is geared towards all audiences—from consumers to restaurateurs to food processors.

To continue to understand the consequences of COVID-19 for LRFS, Colorado State University conducted a national survey of over 5,000 American households in the fall of 2020. The results reveal critical insights into changes in consumer food behavior during the pandemic, which can help guide businesses, policy makers, and community organizations along local and regional supply chains. Key takeaways include:

  • Respondents reported much higher levels of food insecurity than documented by the USDA Economic Research Service in 2019 using the same questions. Households in this survey reported that:
    • 30 percent ate less than they felt they should because there wasn’t enough food.
    • In the last 12 months, 28 percent had someone in the household cut the size of a meal or skip a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food.
  • If the survey data are representative of the U.S. population, they suggest that food insecurity levels are higher than during the Great Recession, when they were between 14.6 and 14.9 percent of households.
  • Besides gardening or growing food themselves, utilizing funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, was the second most common method of acquiring food in our food insecure sample.1
  • Both national chain and independent, local restaurants were used by a significantly smaller set of households in April 2020, and although many returned to these channels by September 2020, the share of households going to restaurants remained at least 5% lower in September (before COVID numbers surged again and restrictions were re-introduced in many places).

You can find a more comprehensive breakdown of the results and more information on the study here. This survey is part of a series that will continue through the summer of 2021.

JBF also helped to facilitate the “Emergency Food, Charity, and the Local Food System” webinar in December. Learn more about the webinar and watch a recording here.

Our work in this partnership is continuing into 2021. In February, Impact Programs Manager, Ashley Kosiak will be participating in the “Marketing Innovations when Restaurants Close: Local and Regional Food Systems Response to COVID-19” panel at the Ag Outlook Forum alongside two other partner organizations. Ashley will discuss the restaurant industry’s response to COVID-19 and what is needed to support restaurants in the future. Register for the forum and panel here. We’ll also be collaborating on the “Online Platforms: Pivots and Planning for the Future" webinar taking place on March 15 at 1:00 P.M. ET. You can learn more and register for the webinar here.

Learn more about our project with the USDA.

1. Note that we asked respondents to include pandemic-EBT benefits in this category. Pandemic-EBT (also referred to as P-EBT) is a benefit to school-aged children who would have been eligible for free or reduced-price meals in schools for March, April, or May; eligible households received an EBT card that provided extra food benefits. Accordingly, this method of food acquisition may be more heavily utilized during a point in time when these benefits were more substantial.