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3 Ways Cities Can Prepare for a Resilient Food System Before a Crisis

Two years ago, Baltimore was hit with the largest snowstorms in its history. The city was in a state of emergency causing the school system to be closed for a week. Yet canceling classes aren’t the only consequence during a disaster. With a major disruption to the food system, how would thousands of parents who depend on school-provided lunches weather the storm, and how would their children stave off hunger? 

A myriad of factors from extreme weather events to labor shortages can threaten the city’s ability to function. So how does a government begin planning for a disaster that hasn’t happened yet–or prevent one from occurring in the first place? In 2013, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability (BoS) developed a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan to identify the city’s most vulnerable areas and the hazards that threaten them.

Based on these findings, BoS and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), saw the need to do further analysis in one critical area: food systems. Collaboration between the two organizations led to the Baltimore Food System Resilience Advisory Report, which assessed factors that predict resilience and laid out a framework for other cities to do the same. Resilience, or the ability to withstand and adapt to a crisis, is key because it allows cities to recover, grow, and ultimately, ensure the well-being of its residents. Here are three things cities can learn from the report to create more resilient communities.

Don’t Recreate the Wheel
By using a systems thinking approach to coordinate efforts among organizations, Baltimore City developed a successful strategy for protecting the food system through the creation of an Emergency Food Working Group. The group consists of food access nonprofits and 12 city agencies, with each organization supporting critical infrastructure in their area of expertise with the common goal of protecting the food system. For example, after a snowstorm, the Department of Transportation reroutes plowing to clear roads to grocery stores as opposed to delivering meals. By taking advantage of each department’s day-to-day role, multiple entities contribute towards the overall effort of food system resilience. For Sarah Buzogany, Food Access Planner for the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative at BoS, the key to supporting the food system is this coordination: “You don’t have to recreate the wheel to do it. Just make sure that you have all the right people at the table for your existing processes, especially if you don’t have folks that are specifically dedicated to food systems working on city staff.”

Recognize Gaps in Disaster Preparedness
It is important for cities to recognize that gaps in disaster preparedness often occur on the individual level. A snow day that keeps children home from school for two days is a seemingly minor disruption, but for food-insecure families that depend on school meals, this event will impact the entire family budget. Food insecurity is not uncommon in Baltimore City; in 2014, 23.8% of city residents were food-insecure. The effects of food insecurity are not limited to physical health concerns such as an increased risk in chronic disease, delayed development in children, and nutrient deficiency. This insecurity can negatively affect mental health in the form of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. More specifically, food insecurity has been linked to toxic stress, a form of stress that stems from economic hardship and other adversity and causes long-term physical and emotional harm. Cities must think about resilience on a macro level, but they cannot assume a substantial level of preparedness exists among their citizens.

Support Food Assistance Organizations
Finally, capacity and funding are constant challenges for food assistance organizations (FAOs), but cities can help them continue to operate sustainably. A key strategy is to avoid treating food system resilience as a stand alone issue. Tying it into other resilience efforts makes this area less vulnerable to losing funding. For example, Baltimore City’s development of an emergency food access protocol brought together food access organizations to better understand their needs. According to Erin Biehl, Senior Program Coordinator for the Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program, advocating for FAOs doesn’t have to involve funding: “From my perspective, enhancing communication and coordination seems like it could be a role that local governments could play, even in the absence of funding directly for those organizations.” By supporting these organizations and prioritizing food security initiatives, the city can help them remain effective and prevent crises from creating a system shut down.

Since food system resilience is a relatively new topic, the process of developing indicators to measure it is still ongoing. As a next step, CLF and OoS intend to develop tools that other cities can use to do develop their food system resilience strategies in a fast, efficient way. Until then, city governments can look to the advisory report’s fault tree analysis, a tool for identifying potential vulnerabilities in the food system. This framework allows cities to deal with smaller, more manageable parts of resilience, which is ideal for those who may not have experience with food systems. Regardless of experience level, it is never too late to start planning for a disaster. Prevention can make all the difference.

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