In June, 2020, the Collaborative began interviewing stakeholders about changes to their operations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The three completed case studies serve as a record of that extraordinary time, illustrating how local groups were able to adapt and what they learned about what's needed to ensure resiliency in the face of future crises.
Norris Guscott is the Director of the Lynn Food and Fitness Alliance (LFFA) in Lynn, MA. In this role, he supports community partnerships to address food insecurity and improve other public health intersections, such as promoting physical activity, for the city’s residents. Funded by the Department of Public Health’s Mass in Motion program, the LFFA “promotes healthy eating and active living for all residents” and aims to “build and support community-wide health and health equity through policy and system change.” In his career, Guscott embraces theoretical approaches to improve public health and food policy rooted in community psychology.
As is the case in many areas across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the incidence of food insecurity in Lynn. Located outside Boston on the North Shore, Lynn is home to a racially diverse population that is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. Existing public health and social disparities – including limited access to fresh produce, higher rates of substance use disorder, housing insecurity, and undocumented status – were exacerbated by the shutdown and economic impacts of COVID’s spread.
In response to growing local hunger, Mayor Thomas McGee announced the formation of a Food Security Task Force in early May 2020 and tapped Guscott to lead the effort. The goal of the Food Security Task Force is to centralize ongoing work to better address food security during the pandemic. “We’re supposed to identify the gaps, issues, and troublesome trends; strategically meet the needs of the community in regard to food security; and discuss and determine what updates, recommendations, and sound policy proposals we’d like to have the Mayor’s Office review for potential implementation,” says Guscott. The Task Force works closely with allies such as the Massachusetts Food Policy Council, State Senator Brendan Crighton, and the MA Food System Collaborative.
While reflecting on the promise of the Task Force, Guscott expresses excitement to engage closely with the needs of his hometown and generate results that will go on to “inform policy at the state level.” In his opinion, the Task Force represents just another example of Lynn acting as a state leader to supporting initiatives to improve food systems. Guscott credits a number of factors such as strong social cohesion, the presence of mediating institutions such as the Food Project, and responsive local government as key to improving food security efforts in the city.
The challenges that emerged from COVID-19 strained Guscott’s capacity unlike anything else. He says the pandemic “impacted my job in the sense that it really, really tested everything that I learned. It tested all of the networks and connections that I made. It tested all of the theories.” Guscott focused first on “how this was affecting the most vulnerable” and did so through “outreach and data compilation to ensure the most effective interventions. In terms of adapting, it was do or die.”
Adjusting to these novel conditions came in various forms. Adapting the operating guidelines of farmer’s markets was a first step to ensure that a constant source of fresh produce continued to go to SNAP and HIP customers who needed this distribution source. In terms of effective interventions, Guscott believes that transparency and knowledge sharing was vital to success. “Food banks need to know about available federal dollars. Non-profits are interested in grants and how they can help. City Hall needs to know what policies and initiatives they can help with. Residents need to know how to access whatever benefits and resources are coming down the pipeline and legislators. They always need to be speaking to them because they’re the folks that are crafting the policy to combat this.” He sums it up as “’Effective communication,’ I’d say, really went a long way towards adapting.” They adjusted their communication strategies in the moment to limit exposure and infection risk. He said, “We have Zoom, we have phone calls, we have emails, and very limited in-person meetings.” They used digital focus group, surveys, and weekly check-in calls.
Lynn could not have responded alone, Says Guscott. USDA support was “crucial” especially with the Farm Box Program and the Community Eligibility Provision for schools. The “ever eternal SNAP has gone a long way to helping the residents of Lynn and beyond.” The Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), a relief program providing funds to families to feed schoolchildren who qualify for free and reduced cost school meals, has also emerged as valuable tool for fighting food insecurity during the pandemic. Additionally, the state’s $56 million investment into food security in the state was extraordinarily helpful, as were private sector initiatives such as Amazon and Walmart’s pilot programs for SNAP beneficiaries.
While formed in crisis, the Food Security Task Force is intended to remain active well beyond the present moment to empower existing and future initiatives. “What I understand [is that] the Mayor would like to see this be a very permanent thing,” says Guscott, which “speaks to strategically meeting the needs of the community.” Guscott considers the pandemic to be an “opportunity to permanently address some of the glaring shortfalls in our food system in an effort to build a new, more equitable, resilient, efficient food system.” In his eyes, similar programs will “morph from COVID-19 response mode” to be more long-term. “Task forces like these are the response and the new normal.”
The work continues to make this vision a reality. In July, the city of Lynn was awarded grant funding through the Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Mayors Innovation Project to bolster the operations of Central Square Farmers Market in order to improve health of pregnant women and young children. Guscott is working to launch the city’s first nutrition center that will house a winter farmers market, community kitchen, nutrition coaching, and storage for food delivery. Finally, Guscott has been pushing to improve the activation rate of P-EBT cards in the city.