The Produce Aisle with Armand Lobato ( Photo by The Packer staff )

In the 1995 Academy-Award winning movie “Apollo 13,” NASA engineers collaborated to “fit a square peg into a round hole” and came up with an ingenious hack to reconfigure the breathing system for the endangered Apollo 13 crew. It included low-tech items such as hoses, tube socks and duct tape. It worked.

As we delve ever deeper into the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, food distributors and retailers are discovering this pandemic may unfortunately be with us for at least the immediate future. The food distribution system, though jolted, remains very much intact in regard to supply, logistics and labor to handle it all.

I know what you’re thinking. What does the Apollo 13, MacGyver-like hack have to do with anything?

First, many retailers are indeed still struggling to keep enough merchandise on the shelf. As panic-driven shoppers keep the pressure on, the supply chain hasn’t quite regained its normal operating level yet.

And yet, right within a short drive from many retailers’ thinly-stocked distribution centers are foodservice warehouses, wholesalers and broadliners — racks loaded with product and with no place for that product to go (normally bound for now-shuttered schools and restaurants). 

Ringing any bells yet, square peg in a round hole?

Second, many perishables — namely fresh produce — can be shifted to retailers. Sure, the packs and grades may not mesh with many (or any) retailers’ specifications. However, foodservice carries good volume of quality produce sourced from equally reputable and common sources. But it will require some unconventional, cooperative meetings of the retail/foodservice minds. And quickly.

Some items might look out of place in retail displays: Plain, five-pound bags of chopped romaine or flat packs of green onions. Some items are more familiar: beautiful, fresh bulk potatoes in sized cartons instead of consumer bags. Full foodservice cases in odd packs for sale in a store? Ask any retailer, familiar and unfamiliar will sell well during this unprecedented time. 

Produce could be transferred from where is isn’t moving now to where you are hardly able to keep it on the shelf.

Finally, going forward in the immediate, unpredictable future, growers and shippers could use assistance on moving not just what you usually spec as retailers, but the rest of their sizes and grades that normally funnel elsewhere could now help keep your shelves full: No. 2 apples are just as crisp and nutritious as No. 1. “Chopper” bell peppers are a little misshapen, but as the name implies, they chop up just fine for most people. It’s going to take exploratory conversations with your suppliers, but I suspect they’re willing to help.

As I once read somewhere, “trying times are for trying.”

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at

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