Delaney Buskard, Office for Sustainability Student Employee

In the face of adjusting to our new normal, the ability of some to adjust has been harder than others, and this has required many to step up and change normal operations. Food systems are just one aspect of life that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. In 2020, three community organizations - City Schoolyard Garden, Urban Agriculture Collective, and the Food Justice Network -  came together to fight food insecurity, through a racial equity lens, in the Charlottesville community. The mission of Cultivate Charlottesville is to engage Charlottesville youth and the community in order to develop a lasting, sustainable food system through garden-based learning and amplifying community leader’s voices in advocating for food justice. With COVID-19 cases rising just a month after Cultivate’s official launch, the organization had to adjust their focus to provide additional support to residents of Charlottesville and reinforce the mission of their efforts. This is especially pertinent due to the City’s racial and social inequities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Charlottesville is especially at risk for the disproportionately negative effects of COVID-19. This is because of the city’s higher rate of food insecurity and poverty, when compared to the state average in Virginia. When speaking to Gabby Levet (UVA ‘18), the Program Associate for the Food Justice Network, I was able to learn more about food insecurity and injustice in Charlottesville, as well as Cultivate’s efforts to combat these issues. She outlined the importance of understanding the intersectionality of food systems and other systems such as healthcare, the economy, and education. For example, “when the schools closed for valid public health precautions, the 57% of Charlottesville City Schools (CCS) students eligible for free and reduced price meals (breakfast and lunch) were in threat of losing a key source of nutrients for five days a week.” Due to the limitations COVID-19 presented in terms of public resources, such as meals provided by the schools, the families of students have additional strain on their daily lives. The school closures and other societal changes due to COVID-19 disproportionately impact front-line workers, low-wealth families and communities of color around the area. Fortunately, CCS was able to provide a meal drop off service along the school bus routes. Meanwhile, Cultivate Charlottesville has stepped in to provide meal distribution when the City schools go on breaks during COVID-19 to ensure that Charlottesville City school students have reliable access to a key nutrition source.

Specifically in her work with Cultivate, Gabby has been working to establish community-based Wrap-Around Services for those that test positive with COVID-19. Wraparound services are a holistic approach to identifying and providing families and communities with the resources that they need to adjust or combat current issues. This is just one of the ways the Food Justice Network has been able to provide COVID-19 emergency support to the Charlottesville community. This model of community support will be scaled regionally across the Thomas Jefferson Health District and utilized in the future, as COVID-19 testing will remain salient in the coming months and years.

Large brown bags filled with groceries
Cultivate Charlottesville team packing bags full of produce to distribute at a test day, at The Salvation Army

Additionally, when asked to evaluate the effects of a pandemic on organizational change in pursuit of food justice, Gabby detailed the differences in approach to either short-term or long-term problems. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cultivate has had to provide emergency, short-term food security relief. However, this redirection of resources, albeit crucial, have strained and hindered long-term advocacy for the issues at hand. “... the mere existence of a hunger relief program isn’t solving the root causes. It is only a band aid solution. I believe a strong case can be made that long-term systems change is the key to creating a society that can be preventive, rather than reactive in our policies and practices. Long-term systems change looks like having a food system in which local community members and residents are working alongside institutional partners and running institutions to drive decisions that directly affect their region.” 

Generally speaking, a common trend during the pandemic has been the introduction and increase of short-term relief. Many companies and organizations have been donating relief funds, providing meals, and adjusting operations to assuage public health concerns. However, there is more to be done than just adjusting to our new normal, if we are to be proactive about food security moving forward. It may prove salient that we work to change our ways now for the long-term, to ensure the safety of the public and our communities. We have a lot more to learn about food inequities and its potential to impact our other systems of life, and in order to do so, we must open our ears to the discussions of those involved and amplify those voices speaking out. If you are interested in learning more or are in need of assistance, please check out these helpful resources from Cultivate and partners: 

  1. Thomas Jefferson Health District Data Portal
  2. Public COVID-19 Testing Sites across the Health District
  3. City of Charlottesville Food Resource Sheet (Spanish version)
  4. Albemarle Food Resources Sheet
  5. Regional Map of Food Resources