Columnist Claire Morenon: Impact of supply chain disruption on local food systems
Published November 22, 2021 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Claire Morenon
The pandemic has brought a lot of new concepts and phrases into common understanding – and right now, what’s top of mind for many of us is “supply chain disruption.” Factory shutdowns and slow-downs because of pandemic protocols, worker shortages, and overwhelmed ports and trucking systems have crashed into increased consumer demand and created shortages of all sorts of products, and contributed to rising prices across the economy.
Small, locally owned businesses rely in part on the same supply chains as everyone else for what they need. So, though we may sometimes think of our local economy as separate from the distant churnings of the global economy, even tiny businesses that only sell their products locally or directly to customers are heavily impacted by these disruptions. From the boxes that farms use to pack products to basic ingredients at local restaurants, costs are going up or supplies are impossible to find. Some distributors prioritize larger buyers when they are unable to fill all their orders, which puts smaller businesses at even more of a disadvantage.
One small business owner, who sells locally made products in jars, told me that they dipped into their rainy day fund to buy extra jars when they saw the writing on the wall last year, which has allowed them to keep their production lines open. Of course, this type of forward-planning depends on access to funds, storage space, and information from suppliers, and isn’t always possible for smaller businesses.
At CISA, we talk often about building a resilient local food system. Part of that vision includes local farms and related businesses having enough options and enough resources so that they can survive unexpected demands and challenges like this. When farms can count on financial support from shoppers, retailers, and other buyers in their surrounding communities, they can weather challenges and provide meaningful food security to the region.
The ongoing COVID crisis and the related disruptions that have emerged because of it have highlighted both the existing resilience of our local food system, and some of the places that it needs ongoing support. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, as shoppers worried about supply shortages and looked for alternative ways to shop, local farms made huge adjustment to keep our communities fed.
New partnerships between farms, nonprofits, school systems, and others have helped low-income families weather the pandemic’s economic hardships. And local restaurant owners have told us that their years-long relationships with local farms are showing their strengths now — they can count on deliveries from farm partners even as sourcing from global and national outlets is disrupted.
Still, local businesses of all sorts are feeling the strain of the past 20 months and the new hardships that just keep coming. This is a great time to prioritize local businesses in your purchasing — whether it’s regular groceries, ingredients for upcoming celebrations, or gifts — and to be kind to the people working hard to meet your needs in sometimes impossible circumstances.
It’s also an important moment for much larger investment in our local food system and in the local infrastructure that supports it. In 2020, the state established the Food Security Infrastructure Grant (FSIG) program, which invested $36 million to help farms, markets, anti-hunger agencies, and other food system enterprises address vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic. This funded 369 projects in 182 municipalities, all designed to help local food businesses keep producing food and to ensure that state residents have access to it.
Currently, the state is making decisions about how to distribute another $15 million in FSIG money. And right now, state legislators are debating how to allocate $5.3 billion in federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding. Advocates, led by the Mass Food System Collaborative and including CISA, are calling for legislators to support full funding of FSIG as written into the House version of the bill: $78 million, half of which should be dedicated to the emergency food system and half to farms, retailers, fisheries, and other food system businesses.
Stronger local food and farming infrastructure builds our region’s resilience, the importance of which has never been more clear. Wise investment of ARPA funding in the food system, and specifically in the FSIG program, presents an opportunity to come back from the challenges of COVID stronger and better prepared for the next crisis. Visit our partner at mafoodsystem.org for updates on this important budget priority, and opportunities to get involved.
Claire Morenon is the Communications Manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).