BURLINGTON, Vt. — Anchor institutions play an essential role in food systems and local economies. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges with food access, food insecurity, supply chain disruptions, and decreased demand for institutional food service.\
In a new JAFSCD article, authors Naomi Cunningham (corresponding author), David Conner, Claire Whitehouse, Henry Blair, and Jessica Krueger present initial findings from a mixed-methods study of New England anchor institutions detailing how institutions adapted to the pandemic’s challenges.
According to prior research, local food purchases at anchor institutions (AIs) support community development and food system resilience. AIs are placed-based organizations, such as schools, universities, and hospitals, that support their communities by virtue of their mission. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how these institutions can support food system resilience during a period of increasing food insecurity and supply chain disruptions. This study uses mixed methods, including interview and survey data, to investigate how foodservice operations at New England AIs adapted to COVID-19 and supported local food systems throughout the pandemic.
The findings demonstrate that AIs experienced shortages of everyday food items among their broadline distributors—large, national distributors that carry a wide variety of food products. However, AIs adapted to these shortages and found alternate sources for these products thanks to mutually beneficial relationships with local producers. Having relationships with both local and national distributors was an important source of functional redundancy within institutional food supply chains, reducing institutions’ reliance on a single supplier and enhancing their resilience.
This finding suggests that local purchasing relationships help AIs adapt to systemic disruptions, further incentivizing farm-to-institution programs. This study also found that AIs engaged in a wide array of food access initiatives during the pandemic, including pop-up grocery stores and serving free or reduced-price meals. These initiatives supported staff members and communities through food shortages and increased food insecurity. We suggest that these diverse food access initiatives, some of which were created in response to COVID-19 and many of which were in place before the pandemic, are an accessible way for AIs to support food system resilience in capacities beyond procurement.
- Most institutions experienced significant disruptions to their food supply chain during the early months of the pandemic.
- Local procurement relationships were a critical source of resilience for institutional food supply chains during the pandemic.
- Anchor institutions supported a broad array of food access initiatives for staff and the greater community in response to the pandemic.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOOD PRACTICE AND RESEARCH
- Practice Recommendation: Institutions that experienced significant food supply chain disruptions during the pandemic should consider diversifying purchasing relationships with local suppliers to increase functional redundancy and resilience.
- Practice Recommendation: Local food purchases are a mutually beneficial way to support the community for institutions looking to engage in the role of an anchor institution. In addition, hospitals have further opportunities to use community benefit programs to support these initiatives.
- Additional Research Opportunity: Future research should examine what food access programs are most successful in the context of acute need and what longstanding initiatives best enhance the resilience of anchor institutions and their communities.
–JAFSCD peer-reviewed article by
and Jessica Krueger
University of Vermont