The third in the MA Food System Collaborative’s discussion series focused on the challenges facing the Massachusetts food supply chain. The speakers on the panel represented various parts of the supply chain and reflected on how they changed their models in the face of the pandemic.
Rae Dick, a health agent from Westford and Vice President of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association, talked about how her town adapted their work with restaurants, farms and other food businesses and that many of the regulatory processes were slowed in the early stages of the pandemic. She also reflected on the fact that each town operates slightly differently as there is no statewide platform for inspections, no common requirement that food businesses work with a food safety consultant, and insufficient statewide regulations in areas such as composting in schools and restaurants.
Cheryl Straughter, who operates Soleil Restaurant in Roxbury, spoke about losing three main sources of income immediately when the pandemic began -- selling breakfast and lunch to office workers, providing catering for office functions, and hosting parties. When the restaurant reopened they did more off-site catering in partnership with other companies, sold grocery items, and set up a grill on the sidewalk. They have had to retrofit their kitchen to comply with new safety guidelines and have the additional costs of purchasing additional PPE and single-use items.
Chuck Currie is the owner and farmer at Freedom Food Farm, a farm in southeastern MA that raises livestock and grows produce and grain using regenerative practices. They make added-value products such as frozen soups, fermented pickles, and jams. The farm shifted to selling their products in smaller quantities through Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Mobile Market and other delivery apps. Getting their products tested at a lab, finding commercial kitchen space, and receiving a health license from Rhode Island took several years. They opted to work in Rhode Island as the permitting process was more streamlined than the town-by-town process in Massachusetts.
Julia Coffey, owner of Mycoterra Farm and Mass Food Delivery and collaborator at Sunderland Farm Collaborative, spoke about putting in significant time to create a food delivery program so that she and other farmers and food producers could have new ways to sell their food. They now aggregate food from 100 producers and deliver it to homes throughout Massachusetts. They quickly learned how to aggregate and distribute, utilize ordering and route calculation technology, and get new licenses. It was hard to retain labor and difficult to incorporate HIP and SNAP users since those payment methods could only be accepted in person.
The panel and breakout discussions focused on the importance of having strong formal and informal sources for information and support. Farmers worked closely with their Buy Local organizations while Cheryl worked with the Department of Neighborhood Development in Boston and the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, which was created in response to COVID. Some looked to their legislators for help finding resources and navigating new processes, as well as to let them know about the challenges farmers and restaurateurs were facing. Many people mentioned wanting more opportunities to connect with others throughout the supply chain.
The conversation also made it clear that more support is needed from the state. Farmers and restaurateurs would benefit from regulations that are consistent throughout the state, rather than on a town-by-town basis, with more streamlined processes, and regulators would benefit from more statewide guidance and common technology platforms.
Food businesses continue to suffer financially due in part to increased operating costs brought about by inconsistent and sometimes poorly scaled public health regulations. The Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program is helping many businesses but it has been slow to deliver aid and it received many more applications than it has the funds to support. The state should consider additional ways to help these businesses to thrive again.