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How to Make Sure Food is Available in a Crisis

Joshua Sharfstein

During the pandemic, it became clear that America’s vast and complex food system has weak spots. At every step from farm to table, we need to ensure that our local food systems have the capacity to withstand disruptions, whether natural or human-made.  

In this Q&A, adapted from the August 16 episode of Public Health On Call, Elsie Moore, a PhD candidate at the Bloomberg School and researcher at the Center for a Livable Future, talks with Josh Sharfstein, MD about what the concept of resiliency looks like in food systems. She also explains how some jurisdictions are assessing—and bolstering— their systems to make sure food is available during emergencies ranging from extreme weather to global unrest.


First, what exactly is a food system?

A food system is all the processes that go into producing, transporting, and consuming food, as well as all of the workers and the many elements involved as an individual food item goes from farm to table.

What is resiliency in a food system?

Resiliency is a concept that's been used in a lot of different fields. [Generally,] it's how systems are able to adapt and move forward in the case of various and unforeseen disasters.

In the food system, resiliency is the capacity over time to provide sufficient, appropriate, and acceptable food to all—even in the case of unforeseen disturbances. More simply: How do you ensure that people have food, even when disruptions continue to happen?

Let's talk about the disruptions for a minute. What are we talking about?

There can be natural or human-made disruptions, and they can either be a shock—a sudden disturbance to the food system—or a stressor, the more gradual eroding of it. With climate change, you can think about more severe weather events as an immediate shock, or a longer-term drought that changes natural conditions as a stressor on the food system.

What about human-made stressors and shocks? What would those be?

It could be political unrest. It could be inflation within the food system that raises costs and limits people's economic access to food. Wars and global disruptions absolutely can impact the food system, even if they happen far away from where people get food, say, from a grocery store or a farmers market. The implications of global disruptions really can trickle down to all different levels.

I think this concept really hit home during the pandemic when all of a sudden people were talking about essential workers—the people who are actually making it possible for us to eat.

Absolutely. I think COVID-19 highlighted many of the challenges within the food system and the different ways it can be impacted. It could be economic impacts to the food system or limited access, where people couldn't get to the grocery store. Resiliency is trying to anticipate those disruptions and then think about ways to prevent them in the future.

How can food systems become more capable of handling stress?

Resiliency can exist at many different scales. Some people work on resiliency at the household level or the individual level, but in our work, we've really focused on what local governments can do. They are often important emergency food responders in the case of disruptive events. 

You’re talking about city councils, mayors, county councils, and county executives that need to be thinking about making sure that their food system is resilient.

Exactly. It could be a department of planning, a health department, an office of sustainability that partners with different members of the community, community organizations, and universities to think about these disruptions and how they can move forward.

Let's say I'm in a city or county, and I am wondering whether my food system is resilient or able to handle different shocks. What do I look for?

We're working with five local governments in the United States: Denver, Colorado; Moorhead, Minnesota; Austin, Texas; Orlando, Florida; and Baltimore, Maryland. We developed a planning guide that can be used by local governments and their partners to begin to assess what hazards could impact the food system and what strategies could be implemented.

Part of our work as a team is determining what these disruptions might be. We consider whether these social disruptions—the human, the natural, the shocks, the stressors—could actually impact the jurisdiction. Then we look at the impact they would have on the food system to get a sense of the threats to a specific place.

Different disruptions can impact different jurisdictions. For example, Austin might be looking at heat waves, and Baltimore might be looking at hurricanes. And we’re thinking about now and the future as well. The disruptions today may not be the disruptions of the future. 

We try to anticipate those as well as the unanticipated disruptions. I think many places, even those who had thought about this, didn't plan for a pandemic. So, what are the things that can raise overall resiliency, even if you haven't anticipated the exact form of disruption?

How can local governments improve resiliency?

It can be helpful to use these four key questions that we suggest local governments think about:

  1. The resilience of what? What things or systems are you actually trying to make more resilient? For example, this could be a city that's interested in local food systems within the city boundary.
  2. The resilience to what? What natural and human-made disasters may impact the food system? 
  3. The resilience for what purpose? What are the goals of building resiliency? Is it to help in emergency response efforts? Or is it for food system transformation?
  4. The resilience for whom? How does resiliency work to promote equity and justice and make the food system fairer for everyone?

We present this as a starting framework. The answers to those questions will shape the strategies that an organization or jurisdiction may want to consider

Can you give a few examples of successful strategies that have improved resiliency?

Locally, it could be a jurisdiction that may change some of its planning ordinances to allow more urban farming and more food that's actually grown there. Or having backyard chickens—maybe those weren’t allowable within a planning space, but changing the actual laws would be a strategy for more food to be produced in that jurisdiction.

On a larger scale in the U.S., there's work happening to look at the different ways food is transported nationwide. Are there vulnerabilities within the main trucking routes? Do we need to have different routes? Does there need to be backups in place and other efficiencies around how food is transported globally and within the United States?

I imagine that a city that finds that it's hard enough to get fruits and vegetables to particular communities today might realize they need a structure and a set of relationships that can improve the pipeline of services—both now and in a crisis

I think you're pointing to a really important thing. We've heard from some of our local government partners that relationships and relationship building are essential to resiliency work and that knowing who the food partners are within a jurisdiction can really help in the case of an emergency, but also longer-term work.

Another example that we heard about is having someone who works on food systems to be part of emergency operations in the case of a disaster, making sure people get food. Having that voice in the room can be really helpful in making sure that food is available, accessible, and appropriate.

Since the pandemic, has this field gained in stature? Given the challenges we've had, do you see momentum?

I think so. I think COVID-19 highlighted a lot of the other vulnerabilities within the food system and helped place importance on planning. Food system resilience is a pretty nascent field, but there's a lot of work happening within jurisdictions to help build it, even if it hasn't been labeled as such. It definitely is a growing field and a space of more interest.

Learn more about the Center for a Livable Future’s Food System Resilience Planning Guide.


Joshua Sharfstein, MD, is the vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement and a professor in Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is also the director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative and a host of the Public Health On Call podcast.