On Wednesday, September 9, the Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) kicked off a series of virtual sessions, Designing Resilience for Food and Farming in Connecticut: A Virtual Series to Collectively Shape the Future of Growing & Eating in Our State. This first session, Successful Food Supply Chain Adaptations & Sustainability, focused on the adaptations made during COVID-19 and the sustainability of these solutions. These virtual discussions, a safe and responsible replacement for the CFSA’s usually in-person summit, will help shape a food action plan for Connecticut (as of now, Connecticut is the only state in New England without a food action plan).
What is the Food Supply Chain?
The food supply chain is “the set of trading partner relationships and transactions that delivers a food product from producers to consumers” (USDA). In other words, the food supply chain encompasses all the steps from growth to consumption. Where does food originate, how far does it have to travel, and how many people have to interact with it before consumption? That means you (yes, you reading this), as well as farmers, processors, and distributors are part of the food supply chain.
What happens in a crisis? As Connecticut experienced at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown, the food supply chain, as well as other supply chains, had to shift to adapt to different needs. For example, some restaurants who could not serve diners maintained their relationships with farmers and wholesalers to provide people with groceries. This kept restaurant employees paid and the supply chain intact.
We asked participants to think about some adaptations they witnessed in their own communities. To speak about their experiences, we invited Kimberly Acosta, the food system administrator for the City of New Haven’s Food System Policy Division, to speak about New Haven’s Square Meals | Comidas Completas program, and Maria DeSarbo, the vice president of Carbonella & DeSarbo Inc, to speak about distribution changes during COVID-19. We sought out two successful examples from the for profit and non-profit sectors to spark conversations about long-term changes to the food system.
Square Meals New Haven | Comidas Completas
Kimberly Acosta is the food system administrator for the City of New Haven. She works closely with the director of food system policy, Latha Swamy, and researches best practices for equitable food and urban agriculture development. To respond to COVID-19, Kimberly researched and implemented a model that would house unsheltered populations while supporting restaurants.
The Square Meals | Comidas Completas program aims to connect restaurants and unsheltered populations, utilizing vacant hotel spaces to house people while restaurants, closed for service due to COVID-19 precautions, provide hot meals to those in the hotels. The program launched in May 2020 with support from New Haven’s Town Green District. According to Kimberly’s research, Cambridge, Massachusetts has a program similar to New Haven’s, with restaurants providing meals to shelters. Under director Latha Swamy’s guidance, this initiative met an urgent need (providing shelter and food to New Haven’s unhoused population) while providing economic support to local restaurants and hotels who were seeing fewer, if any, guests.
Square Meals | Comidas Completas faced multiple obstacles during implementation, mainly funding, recruitment, and lengthy approval processes. After sustaining funding for a month of operations from community foundations and partners, a FEMA Public Assistance Officer from the State of Connecticut assured that the City would be reimbursed for the Square Meals program. The City had to consider equitable distribution for economic benefits as they decided which restaurants to recruit; supporting restaurants from a range of neighborhoods. Finally, drafting and finalizing contracts, necessary City processes, caused delays in project implementation. At the height of the pandemic, the program not only provided food to unhoused individuals, but also first responders. At its peak, the program was providing approximately 665 meals a day to six sites.
Carbonella and DeSarbo
Maria DeSarbo is the vice president of Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc., a family owned and operated wholesale fruit and produce distributor. Maria is the fourth generation of leadership at her family’s business. Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc. sources, imports, and distributes produce throughout Connecticut and the country to a variety of consumers and organizations, from restaurants to nursing homes.
Carbonella and DeSarbo had to adapt to a full shutdown of the food service industry, their largest market. The business also had to adapt to the new buying patterns as panic buying settled in and markets became hyper-inflated. Maria’s goal was to just feed as many people as possible utilizing the resources Carbonella and DeSarbo had readily available.
In order to overcome these challenges, Maria had to adjust the distribution plan. Carbonella and DeSarbo had to tap into different markets and repackage food to account for the needs of those different markets. For example, restaurants no longer needed 50 pound bags of potatoes, so Carbonella and DeSarbo repackaged these as 5 pound and 10 pound bags in order to sell them to families and non-profits. This forced her organization to increase communication and leverage existing relationships in order to pivot operations and distribute to different customers. Having ample space and resources to repackage things like large bags of potatoes made it possible for Carbonella and DeSarbo Inc. to make these changes.
Maria’s experience emphasized how important flexibility is when overcoming food supply chain disruptions. Her for-profit business partnered with non-profit organizations, and negotiated agreements in order to move, repackage, and sell available products. When another disruption inevitably occurs, Maria has the tools necessary to reflect upon the most stressful challenges, expand her operations accordingly, and maintain the relationships that meet needs in the Connecticut food system.
During breakout sessions, groups discussed successful and not-so-successful food supply chain adaptations, as well as pivots they would like to see continue post-COVID. Groups also discussed the obstacles people faced while trying to pivot a business model or program.
What innovations are worth continuing/expanding, and why do they matter?
- Online ordering and curbside pick-up, especially for farms and farmers’ markets, increased availability and accessibility. Farms and farmers’ markets that adopted pre-order systems and drive-through/walk-through systems could be on-par with grocery store curbside options in terms of convenience. Plus, farmers’ market pre-order systems that accept SNAP increase peoples’ accessibility to fresh foods while limited retailers allow shoppers to use SNAP for online purchases.
- Increased communication opened doors for cross-sectoral collaboration and fewer missed opportunities. However, the influx in online communication created fatigue.
- Streamlined processes made it easier for people to access benefits and emergency services. Reduced paperwork for SNAP (such as automatic renewal, and relaxing employment requirements) and automatic P-EBT for students receiving free and reduced price lunch streamlined the process for recipients and state agencies. Instead of relying on charitable giving, which often eliminates consumer autonomy and is not always rooted in trust and dignity, people can better access programs that provide direct subsidies. However, policy must be changed at the federal level in order to keep these changes post-COVID.
- Mutual aid mobilized to provide support, especially in communities who could not benefit from government assistance or stimulus programs. Mutual aid, based on dignity and community care, emphasized community power in Connecticut. Organizations like Mutual Aid Hartford, Semilla Collective, and CT CORE collected and redistributed resources in communities throughout the state.
- Organizations and entities repurposed unused spaces and supplies. Square Meals | Comidas Completas, for example, provided housing in vacant hotel rooms and mobilized restaurant staff to provide meals. This utilized vacant hotel space and temporarily closed restaurant kitchens to support houseless, asymptomatic, COVID-19 positive New Haven residents.
- The general cultural shift toward growing and cooking at home encourages independence, and supports mental, physical, and financial well-being. However, equity is still a concern since not everyone can trade the convenience of grocery store shopping and restaurants or pre-packaged meals for home-grown or home-cooked food. Not everyone in the state has the time or resources to maintain a supply of home-grown food.
What challenges were there and why does it need to be addressed?
- Labor forces and “essential workers” lack social safety nets that protect their health and provide appropriate pay as they work on the front lines. These workers received abundant praise; however, that praise did not come with benefits like paid leave, hazard pay, health benefits, and more. There’s room for the state to make wages, benefits, and workplace standards on-par with the importance of these roles.
- Who markets food and to whom do they market it? While urban areas in Connecticut have farmers’ markets (Hartford has five fresh markets and Bridgeport has eight) not all farmers were marketing to or had access to urban consumers. Bringing fresh, local food to urban areas could impact food and nutrition security in urban areas, specifically urban areas struggling with food apartheid.
- Without a social safety net, people relied on slow-moving relief packages for food, income, and other assistance. Families and individuals waited for stimulus checks, USDA Farmer to Families Food Box, SNAP benefits, rental assistance, and more. Had a stronger social safety net existed pre-pandemic, these difficulties may have been avoided.
- Building networks to access fresh, local foods made for quick adaptations; however, broader networks can help more businesses and individuals access these underutilized assets. A statewide culture shift toward openness in the market can help more people stay afloat, and waste fewer resources.
Community initiatives and creativity drove some of these successful food supply chain shifts. However, emergency shifts and programs tend to focus temporarily on the gaps in the food system and not the sustainable, long-term solutions that could create an equitable system. Connecticut needs a stronger social safety net, including expanding SNAP and providing benefits and hazard pay for essential workers. Policy-driven, upstream change would ensure the state’s food system sustainability when future supply chain disruptions occur.