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March 31, 2020

When Meredith Niles first saw bare shelves in her grocery store, heard news reports about long lines at Costco and learned many restaurants were closing, laying off their entire staffs — all in response to the coronavirus pandemic — she felt the uncertainty and anxiety the whole country was experiencing. 

But as a scholar who studies food systems and food insecurity, Niles, an assistant professor in UVM’s Nutrition and Food Sciences Department, also saw deeper implications around the impact the pandemic would have upon food systems. 

After mulling the new landscape for a week, she emailed a fellow food systems expert, Roni Neff at Johns Hopkins University. “I said, ‘I’m thinking about this. Are you?’” Neff emailed right back. “She said, ‘We’re definitely thinking about this.’”  

That email exchange was the impetus for an ambitious research project: an in-depth survey, launched in Vermont the last week of March, gauging the pandemic’s impact on the food system and food insecurity in the state. 

Niles, Neff and their colleagues, including UVM faculty Emily Morgan and Farryl Bertmann, hope the Vermont survey can serve as a pilot for a national survey that will launch soon. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a number of instabilities in the food system,” Niles says. “People are changing their purchasing habits and stockpiling food, which could reduce access for others. We know that fundamental programs that alleviate food insecurity, from Meals on Wheels to free school meals to assistance programs like 3Squares VT, have new demands and stresses because of the coronavirus. And new groups of people, either because they are ill or have lost their jobs, may be experiencing food insecurity.”

The goal is to understand how people are responding to the crisis, learn what the impacts are and identify steps that can be taken to address the new challenges. While the researchers hope to analyze the results quickly enough that they can develop policy recommendations for the current outbreak, they are also taking a longer view. “It’s critical to obtain this information, to blunt the effects of the current pandemic but also to prepare for future disease outbreaks and other shocks to society and the food system,” Niles says.  

Food insecurity is defined as access by all household members, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. According to Map the Meal Gap 2019, 11.9% of Vermont households are food insecure, 15.9% of Vermont children live in food-insecure households, and as of 2017, 5.4% of Vermont seniors experience food insecurity.   

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