A coalition of statewide food and farm organizations has released a new 18-page report, Opportunity in a Time of Crisis: Recommendations for Building a More Resilient Ohio Food System.
The report by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), Ohio Farmers Market Network (OFMN), Ohio Food Policy Network (OFPN), and Produce Perks Midwest (PPM) captures how local and regional food systems and nutrition assistance were impacted by COVID-19. It offers eight policy recommendations Ohio’s decision-makers can implement to invest in the capacity of Ohio’s farmers and farmers markets, and build food security for vulnerable families.
“COVID-19 paralyzed our country and broke many links in the centralized global food supply chain. Grocery store shelves went bare, animals were euthanized, milk was dumped and families went hungry,” says Amalie Lipstreu, OEFFA policy director. “At the same time, our diverse local and regional food system rose to the challenge and helped meet the unprecedented demand from Ohioans wanting safe and secure food, and it has done so with little to no support from the state or federal government. While this response has been remarkable, it is ultimately unsustainable without leadership and investment.”
Local and regional farmers and farmers markets have adapted quickly, adopting online ordering, drive-through markets and other methods, while taking on additional supply and labor costs and losing regular sources of income, like event fees and sponsorships.
“Without a doubt, 2020 is a different type of year,” says Elizabeth Stites of Hyde Park Farmers Market in Hamilton County, Ohio. “We have had to reinvent our market almost weekly — going from a prepaid, drive-thru market in March to a walk-in COVID-19 farmers market today. None of these structures existed 12 months ago, and I am not yet convinced these are viable models for farmers markets into the future. The amount of strain that our COVID-19 world has brought on the market management team and the farmers themselves is unimaginable.”
Difficulties not new
“While the pandemic has dramatically exposed the systemic weaknesses in our food system, most of the problems facing local farmers and farmers markets are nothing new,” says Jaime Hadji, OFMN chair. “It’s important to look beyond short-term solutions to the current crisis, and instead address the underlying problems facing Ohio agriculture, including lack of funding and infrastructure for farmers markets.”
In addition to farmers markets, the report also describes the need to invest in food preservation and processing facilities, federal aid for underserved farmers selling into local markets, tax credits to assist landowners in transferring land to beginning farmers, and revisions to state contract bidding for food purchases as necessary to support a robust regional food system that will create jobs and build community wealth.
The pandemic has also strained nutrition assistance programs, as the number of Ohioans struggling to afford food has grown, and sales have shifted online. Record unemployment and the closure of schools has increased the demand for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and with the expanded unemployment assistance scheduled to end on July 31, many Ohioans may be left with limited resources for purchasing food, potentially driving more people to the emergency food system.
“Local food systems have the potential to address many of the needs of food-insecure Ohioans, while at the same time generating real economic benefit to farmers and local communities,” says Tevis Foreman, PPM executive director. “We must invest in online infrastructure development for SNAP nutrition incentive programming, and address barriers to ensure that those purchases can be made from farmers, farmers markets and local retailers, and not just big-box retailers such as Amazon and Walmart.”
The groups assert that Ohio’s leaders have a unique opportunity to turn a short-term disaster response into a long-term platform for food system transformation. The report offers eight state and federal policy recommendations:
1. establishment of an interagency food work group to identify strategies to fund and build farmers market capacity including technical assistance and infrastructure development for online purchasing platforms for farmers markets, direct-to-consumer producers, and local retailers
2. establishment of an interagency food work group to identify areas where creation of food preservation, processing, and distribution facilities are needed and how they can be financed
3. passage of the HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, with aid for underserved farmers and those selling into local food systems
4. passage of the Family Farm ReGeneration Act (HB 183/SB 159)
5. changes to state contract bidding requirements for local food purchasing
6. online infrastructure development for SNAP nutrition incentive programming, like Produce Perks
7. support of the SNAP Online Expansion and Delivery Act
8. passage of Senate Bill 121, which supports nutrition education
“This crisis illuminates the importance of our local and regional food system to Ohioans, but we must stop taking it for granted,” Lipstreu says. “It’s time to invest in strategies that will, over the long term, build a more resilient local and regional food system that provides increased market opportunity for farmers, creates more jobs, increases healthy food access, and is better able to respond to future market disruptions.”