The MA Local Food System:
Responding to COVID-19
The COVID-19 outbreak and the responses implemented to mitigate its further spread have disrupted every part of Massachusetts’ local food system. Farmers, fisherpeople, retailers, processors, restaurants, schools, emergency food agencies, and other businesses and institutions have had to transform the way they operate. Every household has had to adapt as well, as access to food has become limited and inconsistent, particularly for those already struggling with food insecurity. And each action taken to address the crisis has had ripple effects that require further thought about how the local food system needs to respond.

The challenges are enormous. Restaurant closures have meant layoffs for tens of thousands of workers, and a large number of those jobs will not be available when the crisis lifts. Those, plus additional layoffs in other sectors, are stretching the emergency food system to its limits like never before. As restaurants, schools, and other institutions close, many farmers have lost critical markets, leaving them with excess crops they are unable to sell. New restrictions on immigration mean a labor shortage for farms , just as the growing season is about to begin. Entrepreneurs with small food businesses are losing sales, and many of them are finding there is no solution but to cease operations . And the crisis is exacerbating existing inequities, with communities and households that were already vulnerable suffering the most.

At the same time, there are signs of resilience. Farms are rapidly developing delivery systems . Alliances are being built between shuttered restaurants and emergency food providers . Efforts are underway to reduce food waste and divert food to people who need it. Hundreds of schools are preparing meals for students every day, many of them delivering food to accessible locations for families to pick up. Advocates are amplifying the need for equitable solutions to the crisis. Each day brings news of creative, collaborative efforts on the part of food system participants who want to ensure that their communities are fed and that farms and businesses survive.

However creative and effective local efforts may be, government interventions are needed to address these challenges systemically. Just as businesses and other food system institutions have stepped up, so too have advocates in urging federal and state policymakers to take steps that address the most pressing needs for critical links in the local food system. In some cases these advocacy efforts have proven successful. 

Farmers markets, farmwork, and agricultural support services have been declared ‘essential’ by Governor Baker, and so are allowed to continue operating. As such, these workers are entitled to free child care , as are those working in grocery stores and other essential food services.

Recognizing the urgent need to scale up supports, the legislature and administration moved quickly to eliminate the waiting period for unemployment filings, including for thousands of laid off workers from restaurants. Changes to SNAP suspend work requirements and roll back some of the recent cuts to the program, and waivers granted to the state will increase the monthly benefit amounts for many households and reduce the risk of families losing benefits. Hundreds of thousands of school children who rely on free and reduced meals will soon receive EBT cards they can use to purchase food. A deadline for payment of meals taxes was put off so that restaurants can better weather the loss of revenue.

So much more is needed. Restaurants and other small businesses are pressing for more supports. Some small farmers have identified priority needs . Advocates for low income communities have stressed the need for cash assistance as well as enhancements to food benefit programs. The Collaborative has put forward a broad set of policy recommendations meant to support the local food system.

All of this has happened in the less than three weeks since Governor Baker declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth. The pace of the crisis has been dizzying, and so has the pace of the response. The Collaborative continues to focus on our mission of building an equitable and sustainable food system in Massachusetts. The projects we have led and supported over the last several years are very much entwined with this crisis, and we believe that continued attention to those issues will help strengthen the local food system as it moves beyond these current challenges.

At the same time, we have shifted our focus to connecting food system stakeholders to support efforts to respond to and recover from this crisis. In the last three weeks we have brought together hundreds of organizations, institutions, policymakers, and other stakeholders for discussions about what we are facing together and how we can develop and implement solutions collectively. We are regularly updating a web page with resources for organizations, individuals, and businesses, as well as policy updates and important readings about the food system as it relates to the public health crisis. Our policy recommendations have been circulated to the legislature as they consider how to set priorities for the Commonwealth, and we will be adding recommendations as developments demand additional solutions.

Nobody was prepared to respond to this adequately. Not farms, not families, not nonprofit support organizations, not the governmental institutions charged with protecting public health and welfare. The combination of fear, grief, compassion, and determination that is pressing so many people into action is making a difference. But with no sense of when the crisis will lift, and the likelihood that additional challenges will arise before it does, there is no doubt that enormous, sustained effort will be needed in the coming days and years to rebuild and grow a sustainable and equitable local food system. We are lucky to have such a rich network of active participants in this work in Massachusetts, at a time when we are more reliant on each other than ever before.

The Collaborative looks forward to continuing to work with all of you as we respond to and recover from this crisis, strategizing together about how to emerge from these challenges stronger and more resilient. We welcome your thoughts about how we can best support this work. 

Thank you for all you are doing to help find and implement solutions that guide us through this very difficult time.
Spotlight on Resilience:
Mill City Grows Adapts to Serve Lowell During Crisis

Mill City Grows has transformed their mobile market into an online ordering system that prioritizes safety and those in need, ensuring that fresh, local food will be available to Lowell residents who need it most.

Shoppers can order local vegetables , dried beans and honey online. Most customers pick up the food they ordered, though there are also some delivery options for those who are unable to leave their homes due to quarantine, chronic illness or other complications that increase the risk of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus. Customers can pay with SNAP/HIP or credit card. Those who do not have enough food for themselves or their dependents and do not currently have the means to pay for it are encouraged to make a note on the order form and Mill City Grows will work with them to get them access to food. As there is a limited supply of food, the group is prioritizing orders from those in need.

The group has put many safety measures in place to protect their staff and the community, working with the Lowell Board of Health receive clearance to begin operating. They are working to make the ordering system make it more accessible via language translations, phone outreach, and through other inclusive accessibility features. If you can provide assistance making this form more accessible, please contact . Updates on their programming is available here .