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Connecting Food Producers and Providers During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred changes throughout our region’s food supply change, impacting everyone from producers to consumers. The Prince George’s County Food Equity Council and partners are stepping in to help connect regional farmers with new markets to enhance local food purchasing and address food access throughout Prince George’s County. 

Stay at home orders and social-distancing has brought increased demand on grocery stores, food assistance providers, and food banks, and decreased restaurant patronage due to dine-in bans, capacity restrictions, high unemployment, and low tourism. In an industry known for its slim margins and high turnover rate, these changes have been devastating for many in the food retail business. While some restaurants have adapted to take-out or limited capacity requirements, reduced demand could cause up to 25% of Maryland restaurants to permanently close, according to projections from the Restaurant Association of Maryland.  

The rapid shift in food procurement trends has had a domino effect on farmers and food producers that rely on restaurant and institutional contracts to purchase and sell the food they produce. With restaurants and schools closing or operating at limited capacity, direct to restaurant and farm-to-school sales have slowed or, in many circumstances, dried up completely. While many farms have found new direct to consumer markets by pivoting to home delivery or bulk grocery sales at restaurants, distribution chains remain fragmented with many farmers struggling to find new markets. 

These challenges are impacting distributors everywhere. Like elsewhere in the country, farmers throughout the Mid-Atlantic are struggling to find new outlets to sell and distribute food that had previously been sold to restaurants or other commercial distribution points. In addition, these distribution networks rely on complex partnerships and support networks that make these supply chains feasible. Unfortunately, the pandemic has impacted all aspects of these distribution networks, causing strain on farmers, distributors, consumers, and everyone in between. 

The Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative, LLC (VPGC), a cooperative of farms located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and West Virginia, saw this impact first hand after restaurant sales dried up, leaving the cooperative struggling to find a new market for their poultry. Aware of the challenges facing so many of the region’s farms, the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition connected the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council (FEC) with VPGC to help address gaps in the regional food supply chain. Due to the increasing challenges of procuring processed meat during the pandemic, the FEC was quickly able to find community partners interested in purchasing from VPGC. Through funding from Kaiser Permanente and the Greater Riverdale Cares Coalition, a coalition of community partners, funders, and elected officials in the Greater Riverdale Area of Prince George’s County, 2,000 pounds of frozen turkey was purchased from VPGC. 

Identifying the funding was just the beginning. The turkey, originally packaged in bulk 40 lb bags for commercial distribution, was delivered to a local caterer, Geppetto’s Catering, by 4-P Foods, a local food hub in Virginia. With supplemental grant funding from the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition, Geppetto’s Catering processed the turkey into smaller 2-pound bags that have been added to food boxes for 1,000 families in need throughout the Greater Riverdale community.

“We’re grateful for the network of partners that made this possible,” said District 3 Councilmember Dannielle Glaros. “Because we have an incredible coalition of nonprofit organizations, locally-owned businesses, and community leaders in Greater Riverdale Cares, we were able to quickly mobilize to take advantage of getting high-quality, local protein out to those in need.”

As farmers and distributors struggle to find new markets for their products, residents around the County face high rates of food insecurity. While over 125,000 residents were food insecure  pre-COVID-19, the number of individuals and families without sufficient access to healthy food has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. The County, local organizations, and faith groups have worked hard to address this growing need; however, gaps in food distribution networks are a continued challenge for both food producers and providers. 

“This isn’t an issue of supply,” said Sydney Daigle, FEC Director. “This is an issue of access. This purchase of frozen ground turkey from a local farmers cooperative is an example of the powerful solutions that emerge from collaboration and partnership. We see this as a win-win -- we’re supporting our regional farm economies while addressing food access in the County.”

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