UW–Madison involved in USDA project to explore lessons learned from pandemic’s impact on food systems

The USDA has awarded a multi-region, multi-institution research and outreach project to assess the impact of COVID-19 on food and agricultural systems and to develop strategies for coping with future crises. “Lessons from COVID-19: Positioning Regional Food Supply Chains for Future Pandemics, Natural Disasters and Human-made Crises” is one of 17 projects nationwide to receive funding through a new program area of the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative targeting rapid response solutions to the pandemic through applied research, education and extension activities.

A University of Wisconsin–Madison team, led by Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems Researcher Michelle Miller, is a major partner in the two-year, $1 million project.

“Disruption to food supply chains from COVID 19 is catastrophic to many independent businesses, from farmers who sell direct to restaurants to food distributors who sell to institutions,” says Miller. “The way the system is structured, large companies are positioned to knock out independent businesses that serve our local farmers, rural towns, and small cities and accelerate reduced resilience in the system. Now more than ever, we need a reasoned approach, based on data, to fairly distribute food and federal aid.”

The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities is the project’s lead institution. Hikaru Peterson, a professor in the university’s Department of Applied Economics, is the project’s principal investigator.

“Our project will take a rigorous look at the resilience of the U.S. food system to learn from the COVID-19 disruptions and to explore the extent to which local and regional food systems can effectively augment mainstream supply chains to meet the nation’s food needs during future natural and human-made crises,” says Peterson.

Research will take place in three food and farm regions—the Upper Midwest, Southern Florida and Southern California—which are distinct in sociodemographic, climate and agri-food systems. Other partnering institutions include University of California-Irvine, the University of Florida-Gainesville, and Kansas State University.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison will collaborate with the University of Minnesota to cover the Upper Midwest and explore food flow. The UW team includes Andrew Stevens from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Lindsey Day Farnsworth from Division of Extension’s Community Food Systems office and students Jim Teal and James Hughes.

“Together, we hope to make science-based contributions that illuminate a way forward for food and agriculture businesses, government and the University to innovate through these tough times,” says Miller.

Throughout the two-year project period, researchers will collaborate with farmers and business leaders representing all segments of the food supply chain, including producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, food service providers and food banks, to survey those impacted by the pandemic; explore behavioral change among consumers; quantify capacity of regional food systems; model changes in the way food flows within and between regions; interview community and business leaders to identify innovative responses to the pandemic; and develop training toolkits for university cooperative extension and other professionals positioned to assist food and farm business owners.

Results from the project will be made available through both a dedicated website beginning in January 2021 and the USDA Covid-19 website.

The project officially launched Sept. 15, 2020. For more information about the project, contact Michelle Miller, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at

Lessons from COVID-19: Positioning Regional Food Supply Chains for Future Pandemics, Natural Disasters and Human-made Crises is supported by AFRI COVID-19 Rapid Response award no. 2020-68006-33037 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and will be administered by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.