Food systems face growing threats, as extreme weather events become more common and more extreme due to climate change. Events such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 have drawn attention to the havoc natural disasters can wreak. A new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Md., highlights characteristics of organizations involved in the food system that may lead them to be more prepared to respond to such disasters, and outlines opportunities for local, state and federal organizations to improve resilience across the urban food system.

Businesses and organizations involved in growing, distributing and supplying food must be able to withstand and rebound from acute disruptions such as civil unrest and cyber attacks, as well as those with more gradual impact, such as drought, rising sea level or funding cuts. Policymakers and researchers are in the early stages of considering ways to improve resilience to both natural and human-generated threats across the food system.

Amelie Hecht, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explored the following issues—what factors may be associated with organization-level food system resilience; how might these factors play out in disaster response; and how do they relate to organizations’ confidence in their ability to withstand disruptive events?

The research was performed as part of a larger project led by Roni Neff, assistant professor, Center for a Livable Future, Department of Environmental Health & Engineering, Department of Health Policy and Management. Neff and colleagues interviewed representatives of 26 businesses and organizations in Baltimore that supply, distribute and promote access to food. The organizations were asked about how they’ve prevented, minimized and responded to the effects of disruptive events like snowstorms and civil unrest in the past, and how they plan to address similar challenges in the future.

Researchers identified several factors that influence how resilient an organization is during times of emergency. They found that the organizations able to recover more quickly had 10 characteristics in common—formal emergency planning; staff training; reliable staff attendance; redundancy of food supply, food suppliers, infrastructure, location and service providers; insurance; and post-event learning after a disruptive event. Organizations that were large, well-resourced and affiliated with national or government partners tended to display more of these characteristics.

The authors conclude that a more resilient food system is needed to ensure all people have safe and reliable access to food following acute and longer-term crises. The study highlights several critical areas for targeted intervention by local, state and federal governments, such as creating opportunities for smaller, less-resourced organizations to share information and pool resources.