Aiding a Food Supply Network Amid COVID

When the pandemic heightened fears of food security, the Friedman Food Systems COVID-19 Connector sent a helping hand to the Maine Farm to Institution Network

Alessandra Cancalosi and Stephanie Cesario. When the pandemic heightened fears of food security, the Friedman Food Systems COVID-19 Connector sent a helping hand to the Maine Farm to Institution Network

As part of the university’s response to COVID-19 in spring 2020, a group of students at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy wanted to offer support in the area of food security. They built a platform called the Friedman Food Systems COVID-19 Connector, which matched food systems organizations with students who could provide technical assistance.

For our retrospective on the Tufts community's early response to the pandemic, Tufts Now spoke with Stephanie Cesario, coordinator of the Maine Farm to School Network and Maine Farm to Institution Network, who sought help from the Connector and was paired with Friedman student Alessandra Cancalosi in the process.

Our networks are about connecting schools and institutions like hospitals that serve food in cafeterias with local producers and agricultural education, and creating more market opportunities for New England farmers.

As COVID hit, there was a greater awareness of food security and the need for healthy food. But at the same time, there was this sense of, “We don’t have time for this—we’re just trying to keep COVID from spreading.”

A lot of schools and institutions that had been used to serving hot meals all of a sudden had to prepackage them, put them on a bus, and drive around dropping off boxes. They had to drag carts to different classrooms to serve meals. They had to get PPE for kitchen staff and install Plexiglass to protect public-facing workers. A lot of them didn’t have the funds they needed to invest in new infrastructure.

There was an explosion of webinars on adapting meal programs and farm programs to COVID, and all these state, national, and regional emergency resources started pouring out for school nutrition and for farmers. But as a part-time paid staff person—the only paid staff person for our organization—I was having trouble keeping up with it all.

Through the Northeast Farm to School Collaborative, I found out about the Friedman Food Systems COVID-19 Connector, matching organizations seeking COVID-related technical assistance with Tufts students with corresponding skills. I got paired with a student, Alessandra Cancalosi, who had interned with a regional local food procurement project, so she was in the know. She was competent, responsive, and passionate, and seemed very engaged in the field already. It was a really good fit.

Alessandra was able to help follow all the resources, keep on top of what was coming in, create a COVID resource page on our website, and send info out to our listservs, including one list with 1,000 school nutrition directors in Maine. People were introduced to funding and learning opportunities and technical assistance that they otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. Alessandra also ramped up our communications more generally, giving our organization a better digital presence in a time when everything has gone totally remote. She’s continuing to work with us, and potentially getting funding to keep doing our communications.

The work we do is a huge opportunity to leverage the power of our public institutions and shift our food system to better provide healthy food to more people, while supporting our regional economy and our small- to mid-size farmers. It felt significant that an academic program reached out to a smaller, more grassroots nonprofit like ours, doing on-the-ground work. It felt significant to just be supported that way. Big props to Alessandra, and to the Friedman School.

Please visit Tufts Remembers March 2020 for more stories from our retrospective on the university’s early response to COVID-19.

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