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Researchers Launch Online Survey To Gauge Coronavirus Impact On Food Systems

Empty grocery store shelves below a sign reading "pasta sauce."
Joe Tymecki
/
VPR
Pasta sauce was in high demand at the St. Albans Hannaford on March 23.

Across Vermont and the country, one of the clearer effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been empty shelves in grocery stores and supermarkets. Now researchers at UVM are using an online survey to gather data on how the coronavirus is affecting food systems around the state. The survey is specifically examining the impacts on those who are food insecure.

You can find the survey at www.coronavirusfoodsurvey.com.

Meredith Niles is an assistant professor in UVM's Nutrition and Food Sciences Department, a fellow at the Gund Institute for Environment and the survey's principal investigator. She spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their interview is below and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Why is this survey so critical right now?

Meredith Niles: We started to see some of the food system impacts of the coronavirus even before we saw the coronavirus here in Vermont. What we're also hearing is that our food system is really disrupted as a result of the coronavirus. So we know that some of our social assistance programs have been disrupted, school meal programs, for example. But we also know that people may be changing what they're buying or how they're purchasing food, as well as how they might engage with local food systems as well.

And how are you conducting this survey? Because I'm curious about how you'll know if enough people are responding to it to get accurate data.

So the survey is an online survey. Anyone in Vermont can go and take it if they're over the age of 17, so 18 and over. And really, we're doing it online in part because we have to. We are not allowed to conduct research with people in person right now. And sending out mail surveys and working through that process is too complicated. But I also think the online nature is appropriate for the current situation because it allows us to look at our data in real time, and then to be able to get it out quickly to decision makers and policymakers.

And what kind of questions are you asking?

We're asking people about how their food purchasing has changed, or if it has changed. How people are obtaining food in terms of transportation that they're using. Grocery stores versus delivery versus CSAs. And we're also asking about their perceptions of food and coronavirus, including concerns or worries that they have about being able to obtain enough food, or being able to have safe food supplies.

And then we're also asking about some different demographics, including people's experience with coronavirus, if they themselves have been diagnosed or know someone who has, as well as their employment situation. We know that many people have lost their jobs, and we're trying to understand how that might be affecting people's food security or food-purchasing behaviors.

And what do you plan to do with these results?

Our goal is within the next several weeks to actually release the first round of results. And we're hoping that that will provide our congressional delegation, our state agencies, nonprofit organizations like the Vermont Food Bank, with data they might need to actually respond to this crisis right now. But I also think that a lot of information we're going to gather might help us think about re-envisioning food systems, moving forward to make sure that Vermont's food system is resilient and able to withstand something like this in the future.

It might give us a lot of exciting information about what Vermont's food system could do in the future. You know, I'm hearing from farmers that I work with in my research that they are overwhelmed. The local food economy right now is actually thriving in many ways. And many farmers are sold out of their products in a time where we know that many people might be suffering, especially dairy farmers. So what can we learn about why and how people choose the foods that they do, and how are our agricultural system can respond to that as well.

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