Together, we can create a more equitable, resilient and economically viable food system
In the early days of March 2020, Seattle-based anti-hunger nonprofit Northwest Harvest raided their food stores meant for as late as July to create boxes of shelf-stable food for vulnerable populations sheltering in place.
Meanwhile, in every corner of the state, consumer habits were shifting. People started ordering online, sanitizing every package or shopping primarily at farmers markets, feeling that local produce might be safer.
One thing was clear: While the impact of COVID-19 was felt differently across Washington state’s food system, it was felt everywhere.
“The U.S. emergency food system is chronically underfunded. Historically, we haven’t invested in the infrastructure consistently. So when an emergency comes along, public investments are often not enough because the infrastructure hasn’t been built.”
Associate Professor, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences
A report from researchers at the UW School of Public Health found that disruptions triggered by the pandemic pushed the state’s food system close to breaking, but not collapse. In both the agricultural and food access sectors, researchers attributed this resiliency to organizations’ and farmers’ ability to adapt, innovate and collaborate quickly. It was also sustained by increased government support, including $100 million in aid and support programs from Washington state public agencies.
Led by Associate Professor Jennifer Otten and Assistant Professor Sarah Collier, faculty in the School’s Nutritional Sciences Program, the assessment analyzed input from over 14,000 participants across 10 studies conducted throughout the pandemic. Participants ranged from farmers and ranchers to policymakers and community leaders in food access. The report’s findings show what is needed to create a more equitable, resilient and economically viable food system.
“The U.S. emergency food system is chronically underfunded,” Otten says. “Historically, we haven’t invested in the infrastructure consistently. So when an emergency comes along, public investments are often not enough because the infrastructure hasn’t been built.”
Food producers feel the impact
Given the diversity of Washington’s agricultural sector — representing more than 300 crops and employing about 140,000 workers — it’s not surprising that producers felt COVID-19’s impacts differently. Farmers, ranchers and growers in eastern Washington, and BIPOC and military veteran farmers, tended to experience a greater financial impact compared to other food producers in the state. Most grappled with shifting market demands, supply chain issues and higher operational costs, which were also felt unevenly.
Farmers were already facing other challenges, from worker shortages to wildfires and heat waves related to climate change. Despite this, many farmers discovered new opportunities to collaborate.
In one cross-sector collaboration, dubbed EastWest Food Rescue, volunteers transported truckloads of potatoes, onions and other produce that farmers otherwise couldn’t sell to areas of the state with high food insecurity. While many farmers have long been interested in such initiatives, the costs and other barriers to setting them up are high. Farmers and consumers would benefit if programs created during the pandemic that link farmers and food access are continued — or even expanded — going forward.
“There’s this hope across farmers, food retailers and food access organizations for more centralized efforts to form these networks,” Collier says. “But farmers need the help of other organizations to make it happen. That’s not a financial burden they can typically afford to prioritize.”
Food access inequities exacerbated
The pandemic laid bare the extent to which many Washingtonians live on the edge of food insecurity, especially among lower-income and historically marginalized populations, including BIPOC and immigrant households. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 1 in 10 Washington state households reported food insecurity; during the pandemic, one quarter to one third of respondents reported food insecurity, the report found.
During the pandemic, use of public assistance dramatically increased, including SNAP, WIC and food banks. While local anti-hunger organizations and the state government sprang into action to fill needs, the system remains vulnerable, Otten says.
The early months of COVID-19 saw food banks scrambling to distribute food safely through new means such as pre-packed boxes. Supplying that food presented challenges, as food pantries had shifted over the past decade to focus on fresh food and shopper-driven selection models. Pantries also experienced a dramatic drop-off in donations because of household consumer demand for shelf-stable items, and food banks initially refused to take household donations because of food safety uncertainty at the time.
12th Washington’s ranking among all U.S. states in total agricultural sales
13%Of Washington state’s economy is agriculture
2000+ Washington restaurants closed permanently in the first six months of the pandemic
50% Of the state’s agriculture land will change hands in the next 20 years as farmers retire
3.4% The increase in the cost of food in 2020, the largest change since 2011
13% Of Washington farmers are military veterans
22% Of non-Hispanic Black households and 17% of Hispanic households experienced food insecurity, as compared with 7% of white households
42% Of Washington farmers are female
“We were clearing out all of our warehouses,” says Christina Wong, director of policy and advocacy at Northwest Harvest. “We have a program that gives kids backpacks with shelf-stable food when the school year closes, and we even unbundled all of those to put the food into boxes.”
Food banks and government programs did not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations. Throughout the pandemic, 20% to 28% of survey respondents who receive food assistance indicated too much paperwork was involved. A third also reported that their benefits were not sufficient to meet their needs. According to Wong, some food banks’ policies also add barriers to access, such as limited hours or requiring ID. These are crucial learnings because for many families, the end of COVID-19 won’t mean the end of food insecurity.
The pandemic highlighted changes that could lead to longer-term stability. It advanced the conversation around universal school meals and contributed to remote registration for WIC and an initiative to use SNAP funds online at select retailers. And partnerships between established anti-hunger organizations and grassroots, BIPOC-led groups have increased.
Moving forward, all sectors of the food system can turn weaknesses into opportunities for a more resilient network.
“Beyond personal nutrition, food is a human rights issue and a natural resource,” Otten says. “In the same way, it’s an occupational health issue because we want to make sure that the people who are growing, serving and preparing our food are also well taken care of. All of these different pieces of public health come together around food.”
Learn more about the School of Public Health's Food Systems, Nutrition, and Health Major at: