Panel Event: COVID-19 and Impacts on Our Local Food System

Nov. 12, 2020

On October 21, the UA Center for Regional Food Studies (CRFS) hosted a panel event titled, “COVID-19 and Our Local Food System: How Do We Respond?” Co-hosted by the UA Museum of Art, Tucson City of Gastronomy, and Tucson Meet Yourself, this event brought together a variety of food system researchers and practitioners. Megan Carney (Director, CRFS) facilitated the panel discussion with Laurel Bellante (Assistant Director, CRFS), Gigi Owen (Research Scientist, CLIMAS), Bridgette Nobbe (UA Campus Pantry), Doug Levy (Executive Chef, Feast Restaurant), and Max Li (Member, Flowers and Bullets Collective). The discussion focused on the impacts of COVID-19 on our local food system through the respective lenses of the panelists. While much of the discussion was focused on direct impacts of the pandemic on the various nodes of our food system, the panelists also acknowledged the systemic issues of racism and the effects of climate change and how those problems have intensified during these uncertain times.

Bridgette Nobbe highlighted changing demographics among those utilizing the UA Campus Pantry. With many students staying home to conduct their studies remotely, the pantry has seen a decrease in demand from undergraduate students in recent months. Graduate and international students have made up most users and UA staff have also shown a need for use of the pantry since the pandemic began. Those that are using the services of the pantry are doing so multiple times each week. In her comments, Bridgette emphasized the linkages between food security and academic success. It is estimated that 28% of students at the University of Arizona experience food insecurity at some point in their academic career. She noted that by offering food and other basic items to all members of the UA community, Campus Pantry is involved in antiracist work to ensure that hunger does not stand in the way of academic success.

Max Li of the Flower and Bullets Collective talked about the difficulties in meeting some of their fundraising goals to acquire land in Barrio Centro for a farm at the former Julia Keen Elementary School due to the pandemic. Although this particular crisis is hitting the Latinx and Indigenous community of Barrio Centro hard, Max emphasized that Flowers and Bullets has not lost sight of their long-term goals related to fighting systemic racism and climate change using a holistic approach at the farm, focusing on regenerative farming, arts, and community-building.

Doug Levy, executive chef of Feast, spoke of the challenges facing the restaurant industry during the pandemic, with many of our locally owned restaurants facing closure. Doug has drawn on his 19 years of community-building in Tucson and his large email following to fundraise to send food to first responders as a way to both serve in a time of crisis and to help keep his staff employed during this difficult time. Doug counts himself lucky, having been in the business long enough to be able to keep the doors open, yet he acknowledges that many newer businesses may not survive through the end of the year.

Laurel Bellante (CRFS) and Gigi Owen (CLIMAS) shared some of the preliminary findings from their ongoing research, Building Regional Food System Resilience in Southern Arizona – Learning from COVID-19. The initial upheaval caused by the pandemic has left many local sectors, from farms to restaurants, in economic uncertainty while also revealing the systemic inequities within the food system. With closures and supply shortages, many consumers sought out food tied to the local system which in turn created pressures on the limited capacity of local CSAs, farmers markets and others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many people involved in our local food system. However, Laurel shared that times of crisis also reveal new opportunities and hope. In southern Arizona, more people are recognizing the need for a more robust local food system. During the pandemic, our local food system has not only contributed to combatting food insecurity but has also provided important public spaces and gardens for people to gather safely and enjoy the outdoors, counteracting some of the isolation and fear that have characterized life for many in recent months. People are more aware of the underlying issues of systemic inequalities and the impact of food on our climate and local economy, leading to growing acknowledgment of the importance that local food producers, distributors and restaurants have in combating some of the problems we face. Our relationship to food does not end at being able to feed ourselves, but it is inextricably linked to a whole system that includes the land, animals, plants, and our relationships to each other.

What you can do: Although it may seem that the issues presented by the pandemic are too great to tackle as individuals, the panelists all agreed that there are many ways people can help by working together. Just sharing information about the realities of food insecurity or spreading the word about the many initiatives and programs oriented toward bolstering our local food system via social media can grow awareness in our community. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer with organizations that directly impact the local food system. And, when ordering food, opt for locally owned and operated businesses that bolster our local economy.

To take action and to learn more::

If you were unable to attend this panel event, you can watch the recording here