OEFFA, the Ohio Farmers Market Network, Produce Perks Midwest, and the Ohio Food Policy Network released a new report, Opportunity in a Time of Crisis: Recommendations for Building a More Resilient Ohio Food System, which captures the landscape of small- to mid-scale agriculture in Ohio and how local and regional food systems were impacted by COVID-19.
While farmers and farmers’ markets have risen to the challenge posed by a national pandemic and disruptions in the global food supply chain and adapted their operations to feed Ohio families, those adaptations are not sustainable without state and federal leadership. Investment is needed to increase the resilience and stability of the food system. OEFFA and our partners offer eight recommendations to ensure we can better withstand future disruptions to the food system, increase access to healthy food, grow tax revenue, and enhance farm profitability.
While many have extolled the benefits and efficiency of a highly centralized global food supply chain, the pandemic has revealed that this efficiency also creates vulnerability. Farmers who relied on these centralized chains of distribution and marketing were affected as restaurant and institutional closures resulted in milk being dumped and crops being plowed under. The highly consolidated meat processing industry, largely operated by low-paid immigrant workers, became a vector for the virus which caused increased illness and death. Temporary closures left farmers with the horrible task of euthanizing animals.
These challenges highlighted what many have already know. A more distributed food system that includes a higher percentage of sales into local and regional markets, with more small- to mid-scale farms and processing facilities will make our communities more secure in the future. What many policy makers don’t often realize is the many co-benefits those investments would provide.
We often highlight the fact that food and agriculture is the leading industry sector in the state of Ohio. A large portion of the revenue and job creation in this industry comes from the processing and restaurant/retail sector. Increasing the number of meat processing plants that will help farmers who have to schedule the processing of their animals months in advance or be on a wait list, will not only help grow their businesses and bottom lines, but will create jobs in those communities and grow local tax revenue.
The same can be said for other sectors. The Ohio Farm to School Task Force has been meeting for years to increase the connection to healthy local food for Ohio’s children. One of the major stumbling blocks is that most school kitchens are built for heat and serve meals and do not have the facilities or labor to process fresh fruits and vegetables. Facilities that would do the minimal processing such as cleaning and cutting carrots and apples or flash freezing broccoli and peas so they would be available in the fall, winter, and spring of the school year, would open up new markets for Ohio farmers, increase student health, and create processing jobs.
Opportunity in a Time of Crisis recommendations detail concrete recommendations that could begin today to address both the need and opportunity revealed by the pandemic. Those recommendations include:
- Establishment of an inter-agency food work group to identify strategies to fund and build farmers’ market capacity including technical assistance and infrastructure development for online purchasing platforms for farmers’ markets, direct-to-consumer producers, and local retailers;
- Use that work group to also identify areas where creation of food preservation, processing, and distribution facilities are needed and how they can be financed;
- Pass the HEROES Act with aid for under-served farmers and those selling into local food systems;
- Pass the Family Farm ReGeneration Act (HB 183/SB 159) which supports land transfer to beginning farmers;
- Change state contract bidding requirements for local purchasing;
- Support online infrastructure development for SNAP nutrition incentive programming, like Produce Perks;
- Support the federal bill to Expand SNAP Options (S.4202); and
- Pass SB 121 which supports nutrition education.
Collectively these administrative, state, and federal policy actions require little to no immediate fiscal investment and will yield many benefits to Ohioans, not the least of which is to improve the stability of our food supply.