In 2020, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on our community’s health and economic well being creating visible and urgent consequences throughout the food system. Many people experienced financial hardship and food insecurity, some for the first time. Local food businesses struggled financially while simultaneously working to comply with new public health guidelines.
Many food service employees lost their job or had hours cut. A surge in demand for food at grocery stores led to a decrease in food rescue.
As a result, food banks ran short on some much-needed items. In addition, food banks and pantries struggled to find volunteers while programs had to adapt quickly to implement new procedures to keep staff and clients safe.
Fortunately, many organizations stepped up to meet the growing need for food assistance. Food Gatherers, our local food bank, expanded deliveries, pre-packed food to help agencies with limited volunteers, and utilized the support of the National Guard to increase the amount of food distributed in Washtenaw County. Growing Hope, The Farm at St. Joe’s, and Zilke Farms Kitchen established The Ypsi Area Online Market, with a drive-thru pick-up option.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services leveraged options from USDA to increase SNAP benefits for eligible households and to provide new benefits to families with kids participating in school meals.
As COVID-19 continues to spread in Washtenaw County, strong racial and geographic disparities are evident. Although African Americans make up just 12% of the population of Washtenaw County, they represent 48% of total COVID-19 cases. Some residents of rural areas of the County have experienced limited or no grocery and pharmacy access, as well as a lack of broadband access. These limitations increase the suffering of rural populations disproportionately during the pandemic.
The Washtenaw County Food Policy Council has been sharing important updates with the public regarding our community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has taken action to ensure federal policies and practices support food access for our neighbors during this crisis. WFPC will continue to monitor and respond to the challenges our community members face in obtaining food.
On September 30, 2020, the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council held a virtual forum with the state representative candidates running to represent residents in the four House districts of Washtenaw County. The goal was to engage the candidates on important food system issues and to educate voters in advance of the November 3rd election.
Moderator Zoe Clark of Michigan Radio asked the five candidates who participated how they would address issues of structural inequities that impact healthy food access, support for small farms, and assistance for restaurants, bars and their employees during the pandemic.
Fifty-two community members tuned in to watch, listen and learn. WFPC partnered with Agricole, Argus Farm Stop, Food Gatherers, Growing Hope, Taste the Local Difference and MSU Extension to organize the event.
Farmers & Institutional Purchasing
This PAT organized on a number of actions including:
-Writing an advocacy letter to our Federal Legislators: Ensure COVID-19 Aid Gets to Farmers and Food Systems
– Writing an educational letter to Chelsea City Council: Members and Staff on the importance of local food access and farmers market safety during the pandemic
– Collaborating with the Planning & Zoning PAT to develop a Local Meat and Poultry Processing fact-sheet
Food Access & Nutrition
Food Access and Nutrition PAT partnered with the Washtenaw County Health Department, with support from a Michigan Local Food Council Network Seed Grant, to collect and share food insecurity data for Washtenaw County. A Food Insecurity Dashboard on the healthforallwashtenaw.org website brings together the available data and a handout combines numeric data with stories from the community about food insecurity during this pandemic. For more information, visit the blog on the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council website HERE.
Food Waste & Packaging
Collaborated with the Washtenaw County Environmental Health department and several Michigan governmental departments on the creation of a Michigan Department of Education memo: Updated Guidance Regarding Share Tables in School Food Programs. This document provides official guidance on share tables to schools statewide and encourages the use of share tables as a way to reduce potential food waste and to encourage consumption of healthy school meals.
Planning & Zoning
Examines land use issues around the food system as they relate to zoning & planning ordinances & regulations. In 2020, this PAT researched meat and poultry processing options for Washtenaw County farmers, which shed light on supply chain limitations in our local food system.
To educate local decision-makers and the public, the PAT created a fact-sheet which was distributed at two public meetings in Washtenaw County and via WFPC social media. The Planning and Zoning PAT will continue to promote informed decision-making around this issue with the goal of filling this gap in our local food system.
Researches policies and develops educational campaigns that aim to protect and promote essential pollinator populations. Of the more than 300 crops grown in Michigan, about 100 are pollinated by bees. The Pollinators PAT came out of hibernation in 2020 and is working to identify new policy agenda items aimed at preserving and increasing native pollinator habitat in Washtenaw County. Equally important to this team’s success is the engagement and education of elected officials and community members on policies and practices that support essential pollinator populations.
For more information, click HERE