Major Cities Series #1: Food Insecurity, Supply Chains, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Major Cities Series #1: Food Insecurity, Supply Chains, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Food delivery truck
Written by Ira Hirschman and Scott Middleton.

A staggering 1 in 4 families in New York City is food insecure, up from 1 in 8 before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in massive job loss and economic hardship. This means that over 1.75 million households lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life and face limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, according to Feeding America.

These households include over 300,000 children in New York City alone. In April, Hunger Free America reported that over one-third of parents in the city have skipped or reduced the size of meals for their children because they could not afford adequate food. The health consequences of food insecurity are enormous, particularly for children. Children in food insecure households are more likely to be hospitalized and suffer from chronic health conditions like asthma, obesity, and depression. As the result of long-standing systemic racism, this burden falls most heavily on people of color.

Food insecurity comprises three distinct factors that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first issue, closely related to the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic, is insufficient household income. During the pandemic, over 60% of households in the city have reported wage loss according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. This loss is felt most acutely among lower-income and minority households. Moreover, prior to the pandemic low-income households with young children often relied on school lunch programs as a significant element in feeding the family.

A second factor is shifts in the food supply chain. With the dramatic shift in eating from restaurants and institutions to at-home dining, supply chains have required significant realignment and greater flexibility to keep grocery stores stocked. With suppliers slow or unable to modify their distribution channels and packaging requirements to redirect perishable goods, meat and vegetables intended for restaurants were left to rot. COVID-19 also makes the food supply chains less resilient. The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center (HPFDC), New York’s major produce, meat, and fish distribution center, is vulnerable to both climate change and COVID-19, much as meatpacking plants throughout the U.S. have seen serious outbreaks among employees.

A third factor relates to consumers’ ability to get to grocery stores and supermarkets that sell high quality food, with low-income households again facing the greatest peril. Food deserts, while less a problem in the City now than a decade ago, still exist in some areas. Reservations about traveling by mass transit, and high car service rates make access an even greater problem. Delivery-to-customer services provided by individual grocery stores themselves and app-based food delivery services may mitigate this problem, but delivery services may not be universally available or affordable in low-income areas where food deserts have prevailed historically.

The public sector and non-profit organizations have snapped into action to respond to this crisis. Food pantries and soup kitchens have faced growing demand and have tried to mobilize, but many have been forced to close due to shortages in volunteers and other disruptions to their operations. Mutual aid groups have sprung up to provide access to food and basic supplies. Major non-profits like New York Cares have delivered millions of meals. The city has also acted, creating the new role of “food czar” to manage food distribution efforts. Many cities and states, New York City included, have also implemented grab-and-go food pick-up programs. New York City’s grab-and-go program—expanded greatly since COVID-19—is under the joint auspices of the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Education, highlighting the key role schools play in nutrition programs.

Although these efforts have reached many families, COVID-19 has exacerbated the fundamental problem of food accessibility and food supply chains in the United States. As we’ve discussed on our blog, these types of supply chain disruptions have taught us important lessons as they’ve pointed out how supply chains need to transform and adapt to our new normal. A decades-old emphasis on just-in-time deliveries and lean inventories means that global supply chains operate cost effectively, but also are left hamstrung in a crisis. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of establishing resilient supply chains that can weather major disruptions.

Fortunately, the private sector is already beginning to adapt. As the pandemic has continued, restaurants, farmers, and distributors have changed their practices, creating new paradigms in the food supply chain. Some restaurants converted themselves into small grocery stores. Others began preparing packaged meals for distribution. With the exception of one or two major online grocery companies, traditional grocery chains and independent stores have relied on foot trade; increasingly with COVID-19, they have begun shifting to direct-to-consumer delivery via app-based shopping and delivery services.

Nonetheless, major problems remain. Food shopping patterns have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for low-income households, who typically visit more stores and buy in smaller quantities. Households in large cities are more reliant on public transportation for shopping trips and may not be able to access those modes during the pandemic. As noted, app-based shopping and delivery services are increasingly utilized, but those services involve additional shopping costs, something low income households cannot readily afford. To make matters worse, increased food hoarding now leaves low-income households at a disadvantage when grocery stores face shortages of important items.

Because of the recent surges and declines in demand for specific goods—particularly food—flexibility to adapt to these changing conditions are paramount to ensuring a resilient supply chain. Achieving resilience in supply chains will also require shorter supply chain connections and expanding the diversity of suppliers to reduce risk and increasing adaptability. Industry experts like EBP will be needed to evaluate the costs and benefits of these changes. Ira Hirschman, a senior member of EBP’s resident New York City staff, was the project manager for a 2014 strategic consultant study of the HPFDC. He can leverage his knowledge of the HPFDC to evaluate the City’s meat, fish, and produce distribution systems to consider strategies to improve the flexibility and diversity of its wholesale food distribution systems.

What Analysis is Needed to Improve Food Access in the Light of COVID-19?

As a leading transportation economics consulting firm, EBP is able to mine newly emerging data sets and to apply economic evaluation tools to understand where food access problems are most acute and why they are arising. Diagnosing the problem through good data and analytics can point to cost effective policy and infrastructure responses. Some of the services we can provide include:

  • Evaluating costs and benefits of a more diverse supply chain with more satellite wholesale food centers and shorter linkages to stores and consumers.

  • Evaluate the equity impacts of improved food access policies by measuring the extent of impacts on disadvantaged groups and areas, in accordance with our unique approach to integrating equity into economic analysis.

  • Performing market assessments and benefit cost analysis of increased focus on regional agriculture to supply fresh produce, dairy, and poultry.

  • Evaluating the costs and benefits of rethinking the use of city streets and curb spaces - to expand outdoor dining, and for bulk truck deliveries to stores and individual order deliveries to households.

  • Identifying and evaluating improved support to low-income consumers to purchase food, and to find affordable options to better connect consumers to high quality grocery stores, food coops, FSAs and food pantries.

  • Identifying through peer cities research methods of reducing the high fees charged by app-based delivery services that burden many business owners in a new “take-out” world of restaurant sales.

  • Using surveys and GPS/probe data to generate new local and regional e-commerce data to support more effective planning.