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UVM researchers survey Vermonters about food access during COVID-19 crisis

COSTCO coronavirus shopping
Shoppers at Costco in Colchester leave the store on Friday, March 13, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Before Vermont had even seen its first positive case of COVID-19, Meredith Niles, a professor of food systems at UVM, was beginning to notice the effects of the virus.

“Certain things were being bought up in stores, certain shelves were emptying,” Niles said. “I figured since this could be going on for a long time, we should try to understand it here in Vermont.”

On Saturday, Niles and her colleagues at the University of Vermont, Emily Morgan and Farryl Bertmann, launched a statewide online study on food access and insecurity, in coordination with John Hopkins University. 

The researchers want to understand the ways the pandemic has changed how Vermonters access food. They say the information could help officials and food shelves plan how to use their resources.

“I’ve never put together a research project or a survey as quickly as we did for this,” said Niles, the lead researcher on the project.

Niles said the goal is for initial results to be released in two weeks, with a full set of results to be released in a month. She said her initial aim was to have 1,000 people respond to the survey statewide. But after seeing more than 300 responses in the survey’s first 24 hours of being live, she said she thinks they could likely aim higher than 1,000.

“This is a topic that’s very salient to people right now,” she said. “I hope because of that salience, we’re able to capture a really broad faction of Vermonters’ opinions and behaviors in this space.”

The survey asks questions about how Vermonters’ lives changed in light of the pandemic in terms of income, food sources, access to transportation, purchasing and eating habits and more.

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Niles said she and her colleagues plan to share their data with food shelves, state agencies and other partners to help those actors make decisions about how to best use their resources as the crisis continues.

By working with Johns Hopkins, the UVM researchers also want to help states across the country do the same, to help paint a picture of what the crisis looks like for food systems on a national level. Niles said their survey uses some of the same questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses on its annual studies, to help make year-to-year comparisons about current trends.

Though Vermont has one of the lower rates of food insecurity in the country at 11%, Niles said there are areas of the state where those numbers are much higher, particularly the Northeast Kingdom.

“But this survey is not just to capture people who are food insecure,” Niles said. “We’re trying to understand how all Vermonters are responding to this.”

The survey also asks respondents about their political leanings and how they view the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those are the kinds of things that might help us understand the motivations or lack thereof for the behaviors we’re seeing,” Niles said.

The survey is set to be advertised to the 175,000 Vermonters on Front Porch Forum, and a marketing firm is creating social media ads to supplement the survey’s outreach. Niles said a number of state agencies and nonprofits are also sharing the survey within their own networks.

If certain populations of Vermonters become underrepresented as more data comes in, Niles said they’ll change who they’re targeting, to help get a more representative data set.

“While this topic might be better suited for a survey group or a mail survey, that’s not quite possible at the moment,” she said. “So an online survey is the only option we have.”

Niles said typically, much of her work deals with how food systems respond to climate change and natural disasters. She said though the COVID-19 pandemic is totally unprecedented, she hopes what they learn from it can help the state to be more prepared for any crises that may arise in the future.

“We are facing unprecedented situations in modern food systems,” she said. “We hope this will help us understand how our food system might need to change if there were another pandemic down the line.”

The survey can be found at Those who complete the survey will be eligible for one of 25 grocery store gift cards, each worth $50.

Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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