WRITTEN BY ZACH HERRNSTADT AND ASHLEY PAGE -
Our community food system plays a vital role during times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. An established and active local food policy council can play a central role in supporting your community during this unprecedented time. Food policy councils across the country are mobilizing COVID-19 response efforts and I suspect that many innovative ideas and inspiring stories are currently unfolding. As daily life in Columbia and throughout South Carolina changed over the past month due to the pandemic, the Columbia Food Policy Committee (CFPC) has, and continues to play an important role in the city’s response, bringing stakeholders from all sectors of the food system together to address food access, local food distribution, and food equity during this continuously evolving crisis.
CFPC was formed in April 2017 by the Columbia City Council in order to “address problems found within food production, consumption, processing, distribution, and waste disposal with the primary focus on finding solutions to problems that promote sustainability, economic development, and social justice in the food system of the Columbia and surrounding areas. by educating government officials about issues of the food system, making policy recommendations, conducting research, and fostering cooperation among private, public, and non-profit interests”. The board consists of fifteen members and currently includes representation from a wide variety of sectors including public transit, Richland One School District, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), Harvest Hope Food Bank, the University of South Carolina, local restaurateurs, community and regional planning, food worker advocates, and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Fostering Cooperation Among Private, Public, and Non-Profit Interests
Food Policy Councils (FPCs) serve many functions, but one of the most valuable is to create a space for a wide variety of food system stakeholders to communicate, plan, and organize. This role of convener/organizer becomes all the more important during these uncertain times of social distancing and stay-at-home ordinances. One of the central tenants of successful community organizing is to build relationships and community capital before you need it so that when the time comes to mobilize around a cause, the foundation for sustained support already exists.
During its first three years of existence, CFPC and its members invested an untold amount of time and energy into developing relationships with individuals and organizations involved in many facets of the community food system, so when the time came to call an emergency conference call in early March and begin addressing the food access needs of the community, committee chair Ashley Page was able to convene representatives from Richland One School District, Senior Resources, FoodShare, Eat Smart Move More SC, COMET (Columbia’s public transit service), Harvest Hope Food Bank, Serve and Protect, and DHEC, as well as city and county officials.
CFPC established weekly COVID-19 response conference calls during which nonprofits, community leaders, and municipal and county officials provide updates on response efforts, highlight current needs, and brainstorm potential solutions to emerging challenges. These calls allow CFPC leadership to connect existing organizations and highlight potential opportunities for collaboration. For example, the committee was able to connect Richland One School District with Healthy Learners to help transport meals to children whose families are unable to pick them up at their designated site. CFPC also uses this time to discuss new grants, as well as other funding and programmatic opportunities.
Creating COVID-19 Food System Resources
Based on discussions during initial COVID-19 response calls, CFPC created a document detailing the services offered by food access nonprofits in the midlands as well as the volunteer needs of those same organizations. CFPC also regularly shares volunteer opportunities and food system resources through its Facebook page and other social media. Since the onset of the pandemic, committee and sub-committee members have volunteered with Harvest Hope Food Bank and FoodShare, a nonprofit providing fresh produce boxes to communities throughout the state.
The committee also created a food systems resource guide that includes local food access resources, as well as resources for farmers, food industry workers, consumers, and the general public. Spanish translations of these resources were provided by SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center and PASOs. These resources were spread widely via social media and digital billboard space in downtown Columbia donated to CFPC. WLTX, a local television station, saw the billboard and reached out to CFPC, resulting in additional coverage.
Food Home Delivery Pilot Program
During weekly CFPC check-in calls, it became clear that a segment of the population was unable to access food assistance due to lack of transportation. In response, Columbia’s public transit service (COMET) is partnering with Senior Resources, a Richland County nonprofit providing emergency meals to seniors, Axiom Farms Cooperative, a cooperative of farms and retail businesses, and FoodShare, a nonprofit providing fresh produce boxes to Columbia residents, to provide grocery and meal delivery to vulnerable populations. Due to lack of transportation and volunteers as well as an increase in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Senior Resources had a waiting list of over 100 seniors in need of meal delivery service. In order to help fill this gap, COMET will pick up and deliver meals to those on the Senior Resources waiting list.
Axiom Farms recently modified its business structure to also provide online grocery services to the community. Customers can now order local produce and staple grocery items on their website. By partnering with COMET, Axiom will be able to offer goods to more members of the community. In turn, more community members will have the opportunity to support a local business during this challenging time. FoodShare is also participating in the program, which will enable them to reach more community members as well.
Connecting Farmers with Food Providers
While some small and mid-sized farms have seen increased demand due to the pandemic, others are struggling to move product that would normally be purchased by restaurants and institutional buyers such as school districts. CFPC is facilitating connections between local and regional farms with excess produce and emergency food providers. For example, through a connection facilitated by CFPC, Vertical Roots was able to provide lettuce and other greens to Senior Resources and City Grit Hospitality Group’s Feed the City Initiative. Additional connections will be made in the coming weeks.
Connecting Organizations to Funding Opportunities, Volunteers, and Resources
With many organizations modifying and increasing services to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic, CFPC has been working to pass funding opportunities along as they become available. For instance, CFPC helped connect FoodShare to the Resilient Columbia Economic Stabilization Program with the hopes of securing funding for cold storage units. In addition, CFPC and FoodShare worked with the City of Columbia and Richland County Community Development Departments to promote the Farmers2Neighbors Program and recruit neighborhood captains.
Looking to the Future
The energy, focus, and ingenuity with which FPCs across the country have and continue to address this crisis is unprecedented. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic reverberate for months if not years to come, local FPCs like CFPC will continue to play an important role in communities around the country. In the months since its onset, this pandemic has laid bare the disconnects that have plagued the food system for decades. The breakdown of our systems of production, processing, distribution, and consumption are affecting more people more profoundly than any period in recent memory. There is little doubt this has caused many to realize the true importance of a robust equitable community food system. FPCs must continue leading the way to spur substantive, long-term changes to ensure this becomes and stays our reality.