AMES, Iowa – In Marshall County the dangers of a food system under threat became apparent as the community grappled with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a derecho in 2020 and a tornado in 2018.
Infrastructure damage impeded residents’ access to grocery stores, pantries, and other essential food sources. On the agricultural front, damages extended to crops, livestock, and farm infrastructure such as greenhouses, storage facilities, and equipment. Business closures escalated economic hardships and reduced access to vital necessities.
But Marshall County’s experience is not unique. Communities across the United States are navigating similar threats.
Recognizing the need for resilient food systems, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach acted. Over three years, Courtney Long, Megan Kemp and Kaley Hohenshell within the Food Systems Team, a part of ISU Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development and Agriculture and Natural Resources programs, embarked on a dual-purpose project. The initiative served as Long’s dissertation research and an Agricultural Marketing Resource Center project that worked with five diverse communities nationwide to navigate their food system challenges. The study communities, which were selected based on unique threats to their food systems caused by COVID-19 and natural disasters, were the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, Washington and Benton counties in Arkansas, Marshall County in Iowa, Bastrop County in Texas, and the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Our goal was to collaborate with each place-based community and local institutions to explore the impacts of COVID-19 and natural disasters on their food systems,” said Long. “Through partnerships with numerous organizations and businesses, we assessed the impacts of these events, investigated consumer behaviors and interest in local and regional food systems, and identified the need for university extension programs to be engaged in this area of work.”
Each community received a snapshot report detailing key findings about community values, local food interests, purchasing practices, the impacts of COVID-19 and climatic events, and strategies for enhancing resilience. With these insights, Long and her team worked closely with each community to develop specific action plans.
“Each community was provided a $10,000 grant,” Long said. “This funding kick-started various projects, ranging from facilitating cooperative business planning to implementing ‘little free food pantries’ and creating disaster scenario plans specific to food system collaborators.”
The lessons learned from this research will continue to guide ISU Extension and Outreach and the communities it serves.
“The impact of our study goes beyond the immediate response to crises. It’s about building long-term resilience and capacity within these communities by gauging stakeholder interest and utilizing components of local food systems,” said Long.
For more information about the research and its findings, visit the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center website.
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