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Panel: Pandemic has tested the food system

Issue Date: December 16, 2020
By Ching Lee
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the U.S. food system, but the system has proven to be flexible and resilient, according to speakers in a food-marketing discussion during the California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting.
Photo/Joselito Villero

Despite pressures from a pandemic that tested the nation's ability to feed people, the U.S. food-supply chain has shown it can be flexible and is resilient: That was a key message shared by three panel members who work in the food business and who spoke during a breakout session at the 2020 California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, held virtually this year due to COVID-19.

The panelists, who represented food processing, distribution and retail, discussed how the pandemic has affected their businesses and the food chain as a whole. They also shared tools they found to be successful and that could help inform future actions, including how farmers can be more competitive in a post-COVID-19 era.

Chelsea Minor, corporate director of public affairs for the supermarket chain Raley's, which operates in Northern California and Nevada, acknowledged the retailer was caught "flat-footed" at the beginning of the pandemic, because it did not anticipate customers' stockpiling. What "saved the day," she said, was its relationships with local producers of meat and fresh produce, who were able to "make significant shifts" in how they delivered products.

"Our food system is so resilient—and I don't even think we knew how resilient it was until we got here," she said.

As the CEO of Gold Star Foods, which provides school meals nationally, Sean Leer said his "primary focus" was adapting his business for emergency feeding programs. The company provides meals to about 18% of the U.S. school-lunch population, or about 6.5 million meals a day, with two of its distribution centers in San Bernardino and Solano counties. He noted how the company's entire supply chain had to pivot immediately from serving in lunchrooms to curbside distribution.

As schools moved away from salad bars and bulk foods, Leer noted how produce suppliers were able to "unitize individually wrapped items, whether it be carrots, cucumber coins—all sourced from California." School districts were able to put together grocery boxes and provide families multiple meals at a time through curbside pickup. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, distributed 1.5 million meals in one day, he said.

"The food system is working and is flexible," Leer said.

Chris Ward, vice president of operations for Pacific Coast Producers, an agricultural cooperative in Central and Northern California that specializes in canned fruits and tomatoes, agreed. He said he saw only a few days in which store shelves were "empty on just a few odd items," adding the supply chain was "strong and it quickly rebounded."

The co-op, he noted, successfully navigated through all the changes necessitated by the pandemic, and was able to keep facilities open and its employees safe. As restaurants closed, Ward said, the company shifted a "decent percentage" of what it produced for food service to retail can sizes.

Related to how the pandemic has changed perceptions on packaging, Minor voiced concern about people's fears that the virus could be transmitted via exposed produce items and how that will affect the trend toward reduced packaging.

With the pandemic battering local economies, Leer said federal and state programs for food and agriculture will be "critical" for farmers who need markets and people who need help with food insecurity. He praised the quick action of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve waivers for the national school-lunch program that extended flexibility to allow free meals to all students.

At the state level, Leer described the California Association of Food Banks' Farm to Family program as "wildly successful," noting it was able to move more than 6 million food boxes to families in six weeks. He also called farmers' ability to provide goods quickly and in scale "astounding," adding, "it was incredible to see the system work."

"We need to make sure that the food system keeps rolling, and if people don't have the means, we need to make sure that the government is there to make sure food is available in whatever capacity," Leer said.

Minor said Raley's will continue to support local farmers and their products as a priority, but noted the retailer's biggest challenge is consumer demand for "quality produce 365 days a year," which requires acquiring certain produce items from around the U.S. and the world.

She encouraged farmers who don't currently have distributors for what they produce to consider developing those relationships, noting many farmers weren't able to pivot during the pandemic and sell their perishable products into a retail setting.

Leer said he thinks there's opportunity to create a "switchboard" that would allow companies such as Gold Star to reach farmers and connect crops with customers and markets, adding that "if we can give our farm partners and our ranchers certainty of market and certainty of price, which I think we can, the system is just better for all of us."

He encouraged farmers to focus on improvements to processing capacity, which he described as a "weakness" and "vulnerability" in the current food system—not just in the processing of crops to value-added products but in packaging them. He suggested this area as "something we can invest time and resources into," to further help farmers move products to market.

Leer also pointed to freight movement as an area of concern, noting a scarcity of trucks and drivers, and said "moving goods has been a real issue." Some of these problems relate to employment generally, he said, with some people not returning to work.

Ward said Pacific Coast Producers "struggled to get enough workforce" at the beginning of the summer and had to run its facilities "with quite a bit lower numbers than we normally do."

He said the co-op is moving to more automation. Many activities in the field already are "fairly automated," Ward said, and packing facilities now use optical color sorters, which he described as "being the future for us," as such technologies allow the company to be "less reliant on having a seasonal workforce moving forward."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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