March 25, 2021
If there is one thing that we have learned because of the pandemic, it’s that we could have been better prepared. That’s true at every level: local, state, federal, and international. But there is something that we can do about it, at least at the state level — we can work to ensure that our food system has the coordination to address the challenges that are likely to emerge, and that includes pandemics. We can create a Food Resilience Council to coordinate the various parts of our food system to address the economic, social, governmental, and food security issues that are embedded in our system and that affect our entire population.
There are many parts of our food system: agriculture (farms and farmworkers), food processing (production, processing, and shipping), retail food (grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and corner stores), the charitable sector (food banks, food pantries, and meal services), restaurants, the non profit sector, and multiple state government agencies (the state departments of human services, health, education, and agriculture). We also have numerous local food councils in our state, from Montgomery County and Prince George’s County to Western Maryland and Baltimore City.
We need a way to examine what is working and what is not, a way to share success stories and best practices, and to avoid pitfalls and mistakes and to learn from each other. This is where the Food Resilience Council would come in. It’s clear that only the state can be the coordinating entity for this work, and Maryland would not be the first. Delaware, Colorado and Massachusetts are some of the states that have already pioneered this important work.
What are some examples of lessons learned for Maryland in 2020 – 2021? Here are a few.
In September of 2020, Maryland registered over 844,000 individuals for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the highest participation recorded for the state. No local group has the capacity to share resources with this many participants. How can we ensure that they are connected to other programs they might be eligible for in other state agencies, for example, school meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)? Which food bank might provide them with resources — the Maryland Food Bank, the Capital Area Food Bank, the Howard County Food Bank, MANNA Food Center in Montgomery County, the Southern Maryland Food Bank — or are there local pantries?
A Food Resilience Council can help answer these questions. Our experience shows that local meal services pop up, but not all of them are sustainable. At the same time, numerous county food councils have begun to coordinate food distribution operations, schools have begun to distribute school meals under the summer meal waivers, and state SNAP outreach partners have begun to share information to provide SNAP application assistance as all local departments of social services offices were closed.
No one knew that the pandemic would disrupt our food system in the way that it has, but everyone has done all that they can to adapt. By taking action now, by way of a Food Resilience Council we can better prepare for the next crisis.