( Photo courtesy Tim York )

While most of us are taking sanctuary in our homes, and likely grumbling about it, there are heroes across the food supply chain that are working hard to adapt and ease disruption. 

Their stories of dedication, agility and ingenuity showcase what most of us already knew — the produce business is a remarkable one filled with esprit de corps, an unstoppable work ethic, creative ideas, boundless energy, and compassion for others. 

How else would you explain the estimated 850,000 California farmworkers planting seeds, tending crops, and harvesting fruits and vegetables during these tough times? Much has been written about the workers that toil in the fields doing work few Americans will. And until recently, they were doing that in proximity to each other, putting their own health at risk. 

But seeds were planted, fields were tilled, and crops were harvested. Many of these people will go to sleep in houses that preclude physical distancing, furthering their potential exposure and risk.
Shelter-in-place orders in California exempt farmworkers as essential employees, but up to one-half are undocumented, lack health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or federal COVID-19 relief, placing the state’s workforce in a vulnerable position. Even so, some companies are doing the right thing for them. 

“We believe it’s our responsibility during these challenging times to support communities who are working tirelessly to bring fresh, healthy berries to families,” said J. Miles Reiter, Driscoll’s chairman and CEO, in The Packer on April 9. 

Driscoll’s is supporting its workforce in numerous ways, including donating $1 million to California healthcare facilities, especially those serving farmworkers. 

Agriculture entities throughout the state and country are also upping the ante on trainings and new models for ensuring physical separation. Markon’s John Galvez documented these measures during a recent field inspection with Duda Farm Fresh Foods.

On the retail and foodservice front, ingenuity rules the days. Sysco, Gordon Food Service, Shamrock Foods and others are supporting retail partners to ensure products don’t go to waste, and that consumers have the products they need. In my house, you’ll find Sysco bleach and Sysco paper towels, as that was what was available to our local market. 

In exploring new ways of distribution, foodservice distributors are keeping valuable employees on payroll, and retailers receive help with their unprecedented demand. 

Foodservice operators are adapting as well, with many bundling to-go meals with milk, cheese, eggs, toilet paper, and other pantry staples. This innovation not only offers one-stop shopping for a consumer, but also additional sales for an operator. 

While current changes to the food system are apparent and immediate, some impacts will be long lasting, if not indefinite. In the meantime, the way through this crisis is not to rest on our laurels but rather adopt a spirit of dedication, innovation and agility. 

It can be easy to take a pessimistic view, but the stories here should serve as an inspiration. They certainly inspire me, and I hope they do the same for you. 

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative.

For more coronavirus coverage, check out our landing page on the topic here. To provide input on how the virus is affecting your business, take The Packer's survey.

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