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Norma Schroeder: Fostering collaborative research addressing food supply resilience and sustainability
Written by Ed Peaco, Inside Homeland Security

The California Department of Food and Agriculture official works with the Naval Postgraduate School in developing models and simulations for disaster preparedness.

Norma Schroeder works to prepare California's disaster responders for all forms of situational threats to the food supply—natural or intentional, small or big. In recent years, she has widened her scope of concern to include shaping research on long-term disruption to the food supply, an endeavor that is beginning to bear fruit.

The Center for Infrastructure Defense (CID) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) presented the opportunity for Ms. Schroeder to act on her concerns when in late 2010 it broadcast a statewide call for research topics in homeland security that had yet to be addressed. By responding to NPS, Ms. Schroeder, an Emergency Training, Exercise, and Continuity Planner for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), ventured into the examination of worst-case scenarios—high-consequence, low-probability events— which, for agriculture critical infrastructure, only recently had begun to receive increased attention. Such disasters could be either naturally occurring or intentional, and might include such large-scale events as pandemic influenza, a 500-year flood, or an outbreak of a devastating foreign animal disease such as Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD).

Developing Research Projects

The problem she posed to Dr. David Anderson, NPS CID Director was the need to address potential long-term disruptions in the domestic food supply: disruptions that could last for months. Food security in cities is spatial, dependent upon a periphery for food. Sustaining it—resilient against even catastrophic disasters—is increasingly dependent upon collaboration, evidence-based decisions, and policies grounded in research.

Her initial concept paper for NPS supported the following model:

In it, she referenced the ARkStorm scenario from the United States Geological Survey: a large-scale regional flood inspired by California's 500-year flood of 1861-62. In the 1800s, many Californians would have been self-sufficient for food, but 21st century residents rely on the modern food-supply system, the endpoint of which is the grocery store. If the food supply is cut off, shelves will soon be empty.

The NPS Mission

Ms. Schroeder said she responded to the call because NPS CID focuses on worst-case scenarios, has the resources for researching them, and makes results available to the public. To graduate, NPS students must complete their master's thesis or doctoral dissertation research on some aspect of critical infrastructure. NPS publishes all but the most sensitive theses on its website, making the knowledge available to all interested parties.

The method of inquiry for the students' projects, as described in the Center for Infrastructure Defense section of the NPS website, is known as operations research, "the science of helping people and organizations make better decisions." Students pursue this research using mathematical models, statistical analyses, and simulations. The models and simulations can be manipulated to study degrees of disruptions and types of responses. She illustrated this utility by describing NPS research projects she helped initiate.

Milk Supply System

In Ensuring Resiliency of the Milk and Dairy Industry in California, LCDR Robert G. Alexander (USN) examined vulnerabilities in the industry using three scenarios. His paper, published in December 2011, used attacker-defender modeling to isolate "the attacks that result in worst-case system performance, even after the defender had responded in the best possible manner."

The milk supply system was used because of its economic, social, and nutritional importance. In general, milk is a protein that is easily digestible and can be tolerated in some form by almost everyone. In this society, it is essential for small children and the elderly, and can also substitute for other forms of protein in many diets. In addition, liquid milk is provided fresh and has a short shelf-life, and so it creates a constant demand. It is also a commodity, a class of goods that is delivered to processing plants from many producers, where it is pooled/combined without qualitative differentiation, and then packaged for distribution.

Alexander used three scenarios in his examination of milk-supply vulnerabilities, as set forth in his abstract:

  • A quarantine of each county due to a Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak or any other event that would cause the complete stoppage of production, processing and movement of milk in a county over a seven day period;
  • 1 to 15 attacks on the milk and dairy industry in a 45 day time period; and
  • The isolation of Northern and Southern California over a seven-day time period that could be caused by a natural disaster.

In his conclusion, Anderson presented the potential benefits of the research for CDFA and the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA):

Specifically, our analysis of the milk and dairy industry can illuminate where vulnerabilities may exist. This can help CDFA and CalEMA in justifying additional funding to mitigate the impact from vulnerabilities that can be exploited by an intelligent attacker. It can also help them develop Continuity of Operations plans for specific scenarios such as a FMD outbreak.

Anderson went on to assert that the model can be refined, updated, and adapted for other commodities. It can also be adapted by other states or regions.

Foreign Animal Disease

Foot-and-Mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious viral disease affecting cloven-hoofed domestic and some wild animals. A hypothetical outbreak of FMD begun in California was recently estimated to have a national impact of up to $55 billion, mostly due to international trade restrictions (Carpenter, OBrien, Hagerman, and McCarl, 2011). Therefore, preparedness for an outbreak is a high priority within the livestock industry, as well as state and federal government. In Simulating the Spread of an Outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease in California, LTC Brian S. Axelsen (USA) used simulation and a designed experiment to identify governmental and industrial surveillance response strategies to control the spread via developing FMD outbreak scenarios across California. These were used in conjunction with a state-of-the-art, animal disease simulation model, as well as development and analysis of an efficient experimental design, allowing for identification of key parameters effecting the spread and containment of an FMD outbreak.

His June 2012 publication detailed analyses of over 400,000 simulations and identified key areas to control the disease:

  • Surveillance activities at dairy and dairy-like premises are a dominant factor in early identification of the disease.
  • Increased surveillance leads to lower impacts of an outbreak.
  • Fast initial response and capacity of depopulation resources are key factors in controlling an outbreak even when no preemptive depopulation strategies are considered.

Axelsen's tool has been made available to California state agency personnel. Its application can also be adapted by other states or regions.

Implications for training, exercises, and informing policy

Each state is required to participate in at least one yearly statewide disaster exercise as a condition of maintaining grant funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. California's annual series of exercises is called Golden Guardian. Upcoming themes address earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods. In 2016, the proposed theme is an animal disease outbreak.

Researchers can develop tests, trials, and models to identify vulnerabilities, prompting development of cost-effective solutions. They can also validate training, exercise, and outreach materiel, as well as verify competence and management adaptations. Knowing this, Ms. Schroeder asked that research on the food-supply system be modular and progressive, with one project building on another. NPS continues to use some of the same data, the transportation system, as well as mapping and information tools, etc. in developing new inquiries.

Further Research

Recent, unprecedented funding for homeland security produced a glut of disaster facts and emergency databases. This means that researchers can turn to producing intelligence, intersector and interdisciplinary analyses, combinations, and systems-level proposals. Broad social change for food supply-chain resilience relies on instituting long-term drivers that support food proximity and adaptability. Research can identify issues, but to effect change, findings and insights must be combined with local expertise, resourcefulness, and social competence. For example, simply increasing the number of food outlets in "food deserts" may prove futile without further investigations. Usefulness will depend upon analyses of transportation costs, convenience, and food-alternatives, along with the relationship between housing, work, and local food customs. This research must be developed through collaboration among agencies, researchers, and the local experts whose understanding of the linkages between the built and human environments can inform complex decisions.

Norma Schroeder

Norma Schroeder is an Emergency Training, Exercise, and Continuity Planner for the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA). She proposed food infrastructure research to the Naval Postgraduate School's (NPS) Center for Infrastructure Defense (CID), and continues to collaborate with them on food supply chain resiliency and sustainability projects. She serves on the International Association of Emergency Managers' (IAEM) Training & Education Committee and on IAEM's Food & Agriculture Committee.

Before joining CDFA, Ms. Schroeder worked for the California Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) as a Disaster Medical Specialist, for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) as a Health Facilities Evaluator, and as a public elected official. In the private sector she chaired a Level II Regional Trauma Center, and a California Health Care Foundation. She worked on Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, deployed with the American Red Cross, and is a retired U.S. Naval Warfare Officer.

Her education includes licenses as a nurse and health facility administrator; certificates [AgroTerrorism, HACCP, Professional Development, Master Trainer, Master Exercise Practitioner, and Professional Continuity Practitioner]; programs in Emergency-Disaster Management and Adult Education; and degrees in Marketing Management, Business Administration, and Sociology.


Carpenter, T. E., O'Brien, J. M., Hagerman, A. D., & McCarl, B. A. (2011). Epidemic and economic impacts of delayed detection of foot-and-mouth disease: A case study of a simulated outbreak in California. Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 23(1), 26–33.

Helpful Links

California Department of Food and Agriculture: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov Naval Postgraduate School Center for Critical Infrastructure Defense: http://www.nps.edu/cid

  • Dr. David Alderson, PhD, CID Director, conducts research on complex network-centric systems, network optimization, game theory, and risk management. The primary area of application of his research is critical infrastructure systems. http://faculty.nps.edu/dlalders
  • Ensuring Resiliency in the Milk and Dairy Industry in California Alexander, Robert G. (Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School, 2011-12)
  • Simulating the Spread of an Outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in California, Axelsen, Brian S. (Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School, 2012-06)
  • Theses Directory: http://www.nps.edu/Academics/Schools/GSOIS/Departments/OR/CID/Student-Theses/CIDStudentTheses.html ARkStorm Scenario, USGS Open-File Report 2010-1312: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2010/1312 CalEMA Golden Guardian Annual Statewide Exercise Series: http://www.calema.ca.gov/TrainingandExercises/Pages/Golden-Guardian.aspx Food Desert Locator: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator/go-to-the-locator.aspx

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