As impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic ripple through everyday life and more households are struggling to put food on the table, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is moving to shape a food “relief and recovery” initiative that could begin this summer.
The effort, led by the Madison Food Policy Council with partners including the Dane County Food Council and UW-Madison Division of Extension along with broad community input, could tap into city funding, attract outside dollars, and use city land and facilities.
“The pandemic changes everything,” Rhodes-Conway told the council at an online meeting Wednesday. “It’s completely changed a lot of things about how we access food. We have to question everything. We have to rethink everything. We have to think now about how we can make sure how everyone in Madison can meet their needs.”
COVID-19 is causing major social and economic disruption in the U.S. and globally, and households are increasingly relying on the emergency food system — food banks and pantries, city food policy director George Reistad said. In Madison, the United Way’s 211 service has seen triple the number of calls looking for food support and other services, he said.
More households are in need of food assistance as certain sectors of the economy shut down or reduce scope and people lose incomes, Reistad said. Also, people who were already struggling to meet basic needs must now navigate curtailed social services, social distancing, and a more competitive job market.
“We’ve seen approximately a fourfold increase in households enrolling for services for the first time,” said Charles McLimans, president of the The River Food Pantry in Madison. “From March 16 to April 25 we had 618 families register for the first time. In a normal busy month we may see an upper limit of 150.”
Moreover, people already marginalized — low-income residents, people of color, undocumented residents, and children, especially of single parents — are being hit harder than others, Reistad said. “This is not just applicable to food access and food security but to a whole host of other social determinants of health,” he said.
“We are sending out more than double the pounds of food than last year at this time,” said Kristopher Tazelaar, spokesman for Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. “We are receiving five times the number of calls than normal from people needing help. It is costing us nearly 10 times the amount we budgeted pre-COVID for food costs and handling expenses to meet the increased need.
“The increased need we’re seeing during the emergency phase of the pandemic will continue as we go through the economic recovery phase,” Tazelaar said.
Gaps in system
On a national scale, supply chains currently are structured to provide food and agriculture products to retail markets and wholesale markets, Reistad said.
“We have a disconnect between supply and demand,” he said. “The average consumer can’t effectively use a 50-pound bag of milk that a restaurant or food-service provider would use. We have a lot of hungry people and a lot of surplus product but not many quick and easy linkages to bridge the two. Creating more infrastructure to address issues like this would go a long way in being able to supply the emergency food system and serve residents in need.”
The crisis has highlighted gaps in the local food system around food flow, and efforts should be made on collection, storage, and distribution of local agricultural products into local and regional markets, he said.
The council is discussing how to revamp its scope of work and focus on relief and recovery. “It’s an opportunity to innovate,” Rhodes-Conway said. “There is an opportunity here for you to have a big impact on the food system.”
Council members embraced the challenge. “I think this is fantastic. I’m excited,” member Hedi Rudd said.
To start, the initiative would:
- Map the emergency food system and any gaps.
- Identify ways to increase access, including pick-up, delivery and transportation.
- Identify ways to divert recoverable food.
- Explore ways to employ food-based businesses to meet emergency food needs.
For emergency access and relief, “moving quickly is a priority,” council chairwoman Erica Anderson said.
The council will work with Public Health Madison and Dane County and the city’s Economic Development Division on how food retail systems work in a pandemic, including farmers markets, grocers, restaurants and delivery. It also will explore how federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and food stamp recipients access the food and how to deal with disruptions in the food supply chain.
There are two basic food access strategies — bringing people to food and bringing food to people, Reistad said. The former seeks to eliminate food deserts and ensure there are “good food” outlets near those with lower incomes and low vehicle access. The latter makes sure there is robust infrastructure around delivery or neighborhood-based pick-up options, he said.
“I think that the surge in demand for grocery delivery and curbside pick-up options during COVID-19 are going to push the conversation forward at the federal level on relaxing program restrictions on grocery delivery,” Reistad said. “I also think it will also catalyze philanthropic and other soft money to explore the issue of offering alternative food access strategies outside of just building brick-and-mortar stores.”
The city could increase local food cultivation by identifying city-owned land with potential for farming, creating a backyard garden support network/program, supporting expansion of pantry gardens, developing and supporting farm partnerships, and facilitating harvests for donation, he said.
The city already has many tools, he said. It has historically invested almost $300,000 annually in community food systems through multiple initiatives including a Healthy Retail Access Program, Luna’s Groceries, Madison Oriental Market, FEED Kitchens, River Food Pantry, the Madison Terminal Market Project and SEED Grants.
“Moving forward, I think the city has the capacity to be flexible in how we utilize some of these funds to support food relief and recovery efforts,” Reistad said. “Additionally, the city owns a lot of land and facilities and, based on needs that exist currently and emerge over time, I think policymakers and staff can be innovative in re-purposing underutilized city-owned resources.”
The council will be key, but many in the community are working on food access and security, land access and urban production, food recovery, food service, economic development and business operations, he said.
“Sometimes we’re going to lead, sometimes we’re going follow,” council member Chris Brockel said.
“I think this is fantastic. I’m excited.” Hedi Rudd, member of Madison Food Policy Council
"I think this is fantastic. I'm excited."
Hedi Rudd, member of Madison Food Policy Council