CENTER FOR FOOD INNOVATION SEEKS TO DEVELOP FLEXIBLE, PANDEMIC-PROOF FOOD SYSTEM

Author: Gus Jaynes

As consumers across the country and around the world quickly found out, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the way the food system operates.  In the last year, it has become clear just how much the food supply chain, among others, is being challenged by COVID-related disruptions.  At the supply end, we have borne witness to farmers dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk, and ploughing millions of pounds of unmarketable crops back into their fields, as they were left without a place to sell those goods.  Simultaneously, many US consumers lost their jobs and found themselves facing severe financial stress, causing the need for food assistance to skyrocket.

Additionally, thinking around food systems has been plagued by “siloization,” with groups working on nutrition, the environment, employment, trade, and other sectors all relatively isolated from one another.  What COVID-19 has laid bare is that all these diverse sectors with a stake in food do not operate separately from one another.

What this all demonstrates is the pressing need to pivot toward a new mode of thinking about the food system, one based around the principle of interrelatedness.  This might be referred to as a “systems thinking” approach; a holistic way of looking at the inter-relationship, boundaries and perspectives of all the stakeholders. As David Jarry outlined in his initial blog post, developing an agricultural cluster in Northeast Ohio would provide a great economic boon to the region.  At the same time, increasing firm networking and knowledge sharing by developing a cluster would also work to adapt the agricultural supply chain to a post-COVID world.  While it can be argued that “just-in-time” supply chain architectures have always run the risk of being overly brittle, the pandemic has demonstrated just how substantially disruptions can impact business operations, and the very people those companies ultimately serve.

The time has come to build back in redundancy and diversity into the food supply chain.  We can achieve this by regionalizing the food system in Northeast Ohio, ensure resiliency and nimbleness across more flexible, shorter supply chains.  Working toward this end while simultaneously improving cross-functional communication between corporations, research networks, suppliers, and distributors, we can effectively ensure that there be more equitable access to food, that farmers have more stable markets for their goods, and that the food and agriculture industry in our region be better prepared to respond to shocks and uncertainties.  To that end, we have assembled a board of accomplished community leaders with diverse perspectives from within the food system in Lorain County and Northeast Ohio.  To instigate a formal process of systems thinking, we are launching three initiatives: CONVENE, GROW, ATTRACT.  These initiatives in combination will serve to bring together all the member stakeholders across the value chain to provide information and resource sharing; inspire startups and scaleups in all aspects pertaining to food; and attract established year-round farms and agtech companies.

We have certainly all learned a lot from 2020; one major lesson is that the time has come to rethink the way we organize our supply chains and industry structures, which is just what we at the Center for Food Innovation are out to do for Northeast Ohio agriculture.

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