Increasing local food security

Increasing local food security
Elizabeth Schuster

The process of food security primarily has three steps: agricultural production, food processing and storage, and getting food to families in need. Each of these steps faces challenges during the pandemic.


With the unemployment rate on the rise, more households are at risk of not being able to purchase enough food. In Wayne County the number of households applying for food assistance almost doubled since the stay-at-home order, compared to the amount earlier this year.

At the same time, however, news reports highlight stories of farmers forced to dump milk and without means to sell pork.

Why, then, is it so challenging to connect excess food on one end with families in need on the other?

To understand the barriers, one must look at the entire system of food security. The process primarily has three steps: agricultural production, food processing and storage, and getting food to families in need. Each of these steps faces challenges during the pandemic.

Agricultural production

Recent surveys of Ohio farmers by the Ohio State University Farm Office Team, Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers, and Ohio Farm Bureau found the two greatest challenges for farmers during the pandemic are access to markets and cash flow.

“A lot more farmers will be at risk in the fall,” said Ben Brown, professor of professional practice at Ohio State. “Farmers ask, 'Do we even plant anything if they aren't projected to be profitable in the fall?'”

Brown said it will be especially hard for dairy farmers, who have experienced four bad years in a row. “This was supposed to be their first good year. We'll continue to see large liquidation of dairy assets if COVID-19 impacts and disruptions continue,” he said.

OSU Extension of Wayne County reported livestock producers are struggling as well. There has been an increase in calls from farmers asking about legal requirements to sell meat from the farm.

“I believe (this increase is) because of uncertainty of farm income," said Rory Lewandowski, extension educator for agriculture and natural resources. "Most of the conventional markets do not look good at this time, and profit margins are very low to negative.”

Food processing and storage

The news has widely reported backlogs in meat- and dairy-processing facilities. Wayne County is fortunate to have many local processors, but this also can be a bottleneck.

“We are hearing that most of our smaller, local meat processors are full and scheduling openings for slaughter/processing 8-15 months in advance,” Lewandowski said.

Packaging also can be an issue when food surplus is repurposed. SmithFoods in Orrville donated 10 pallets of cottage cheese to the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank during the pandemic. While this is considered a success story, there’s a catch: They were in 5-pound containers originally earmarked for restaurants or schools.

“We had to redistribute some excess to local food banks with more hot-food sites,” the food bank’s Raven Gayheart said, so the containers could be reprocessed into smaller servings for families.

Even though some surplus processed foods find their way from manufacturers to food banks, storage still remains a big issue — in many cases there is no room to drop off excess food, particularly if the food is perishable.

“Kandel Transport is donating three months of freezer storage,” Gayheart said, which would temporarily allow them to accept more perishable items from food processors.

Getting food to families in need

Here’s where food pantries play a key role.

“One barrier to food pantries getting food from local farms is the coordination and delivery system,” said Karen Potter, executive director of A Whole Community, based in Wooster.

A Whole Community has made strides in designing a system to receive and distribute produce to those in need through food pantries and meal sites. Last year the organization paid over $8,000 to the farmers and distributed 6,465 boxes of fresh, local produce.

Wayne County food pantries have experienced a huge increase in demand during the pandemic. They have requested 300,000 pounds more from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank this year than for the same time period last year.

Wayne County Community Foundation and partners also increased their giving toward emergency food assistance, giving to four different organizations in their most recent round announced in early May.

“Food security is a top priority. The current COVID-19 crisis has placed increasing demands on resources with more families and individuals requesting assistance than ever before,” said Sara Patton, the foundation’s executive director.

The Wayne County Food Pantry of the Wooster Hope Center was one recipient of WCCF grants. “We've seen a major increase over the eight weeks that we installed the drive-through pantry. Before the pandemic we were at around 375 families per week. After COVID-19 we jumped to about 750 a week, so it nearly doubled,” Pastor Richard Frazier at the Wooster Hope Center said.

When asked if they distribute local foods, Frazier pointed out they receive a lot of produce grown in the region via the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. “We also get local farmers who drop off excess produce over the summer,” he said. “The transportation and delivery of the products is an issue,” serving as a barrier for increasing the amount of food they get from local farms.

“We would need better equipped vehicles to be able to pick up from farmers. Our truck doesn't have a lift. That makes it hard for volunteers to unload the trucks,” Frazier said.

Overcoming obstacles

What does this all mean? On the agricultural production side, the high uncertainty means more farm surpluses might occur later this year. Unfortunately this means some risk of farmers having to dump excess production — again.

On the food-processing side, many of the delays will be solved with time. Also, with packaging and storage issues, these can be solved with time and creativity.

With regards to getting food to families in need, food pantries have an openness to utilize more local foods but need help logistically.

To get more food from local farms to food pantries, collaboration will be crucial. “There needs to be more coordination across the food pantries. If we don't coordinate, there could be food being wasted,” Frazier said.

Also, planning and coordination between farmers and food pantries could help provide more predictability for each group. Farmers inherently will benefit from more stability in their markets. And food pantries are on the same page; they also want reliability and consistency in their food supplies.

More funding sources are coming available due to the pandemic such as the $3 billion from the USDA Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, which will go to distribution centers across the U.S. to purchase dairy, meat and produce for food banks and other nonprofits. The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank will receive a portion of that funding, serving as the local distribution center for Wayne County.

Policy analysts from Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said, “The requirement of meat products needing to be cooked to be included in the CFAP distribution makes it a challenge for local meat producers to participate on the supply side of this program.”

Nevertheless, large influxes of funding from a diversity of sources may be the secret to finally overcoming some of the barriers related to connecting local farms and food security. Then, once the systems are in place, it could make it easier for families to utilize farm surpluses in the future.

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