COVID-19 Impact to the Foodways System
Helpers

Katy Briggs, Brand Strategy Director

As communities adjust to this strange new normal, there is great uncertainty fueled by a constant state of flux. Social science teaches us the elevated importance of support during times of crisis; both practical and emotional support are critical to remaining functional in our daily lives. Our individual responses are being shaped based on how supported we feel. One of the primary aspects of practical support is human reliance on the availability of food and other essential needs. Let’s first examine the impact of this uncertainty to our foodways system through the lens of social science and then look a bit deeper to understand what roles we can all play to help provide some level of support.

COVID-19 has set off a chain of events leading to significant fears about food scarcity in the United States. Everyone is feeling the perceived instability of our foodways system. While the system is not failing, it is being tested. This is creating an unprecedented sense of widespread fear and panic that continues to build. Businesses are trying to keep up with changes in demand and stay in business.

In times of uncertainty, we tend to draw from our past. One piece of wisdom that rings true today is Mr. Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers.” This resonates today. Finding the helpers is easy right now as we all navigate these uncharted waters. We find them on the front lines with healthcare providers and first responders. But we also find them in many other unassuming places behind the scenes.

At the center of it all are the people working every day to protect the foodways system from collapse. These people are playing critical roles, and they are facing intense struggles every day. At every point of the supply chain these unseen heroes are tasked with keeping food on the shelves of American grocery stores, delivering or supplying carry-out meals and ensuring that shipments are arriving as scheduled. These real stories provide a sense of hope and inspiration that there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel. To gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 is impacting workers across the foodways system, we conducted a series of interviews with people in various positions – all working toward a common goal of keeping these systems operational.

While the stockpiling we have seen is very real, the perceived scarcity is not. Stocking and replenishment are simply running behind, and it takes time to rebound with the significantly depleted resources we are seeing right now. “We have experienced temporary outages of certain products, but for the most part we have been able to keep the core of our product selection stocked and available,” said a baker at a big box retailer.

These stories are inspiring others. As we hear stories of the helpers, we are inspired to share them with others so that we can all do our part in supporting them as they support all of us. The idea of paying it forward has never been more relevant in our lives than now. These are just a few examples, based on our interviews, where efforts behind the scenes are stabilizing our strained foodways system.

Production

Throughout food production and the food supply chain, we see varying degrees of impact from COVID-19. Farmers are certainly familiar with the inherent volatility of the commodities market, but they are being challenged on a daily basis by this pandemic. One soybean farmer described the situation as difficult to predict, but that’s nothing new for farmers as supply and demand is in a constant state of flux. New challenges facing producers include closure of processing plants that could be putting the meat supply at risk. For example, a South Dakota plant is closed until future notice at it has reported over 200 cases of Covid-19 (about half of the state’s cases). There is an underlying sense of responsibility among the farming community – this “grit” comes with the territory. They are built to persevere.

For those working in retail food production, the “prep list” has changed. As purchase behavior shifts from “nice to have” products to commodities, those preparing ready-to-eat foods have modified their output to align with the immediate needs of the shopper. For bakeries, a shortage of prepackaged bread means increasing bread production over pastries and pies, all while providing safe and empathetic surroundings for customers shopping in fear. The focus is no longer on keeping the shelves full of indulgences for mass consumption; it is now on providing support by supplying people with essentials they need to feed their families when they can’t venture from store to store or dine out at their leisure.

Other areas of production related to packaging have also seen a significant change in business. For food packaging and labels, all orders are rush orders as companies are struggling to meet high demand far beyond expectations. In some cases, completely new packaging is being created on demand for new products in high demand, such as hand sanitizer, in facilities designed to produce beer and liquor. A label company spokesperson observed that, “This type of production shift hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. Americans can be ingenious when they try. It’s inspiring.”

Food Service

In the food service industry, which has been devastated by COVID-19, things look substantially different. This is an industry built on service – service that looks very different in a world of social distancing. It is difficult to predict what the new reality will look like on the other side. “There is a great deal of pivoting or getting creative out of the necessity,” reported one restaurant owner. This is the reality of what it will take for many to stay in business. Many restaurants won’t survive this, but those that can adapt to the current state are likely to prevail and maintain the trust they have established. Restaurant owners and operators are looking for unique ways to support their staff in this trying time such as adding new products and services. They’re identifying the pieces of their businesses that they can keep intact and keep their people working. The human truth of the restaurateur has shifted from providing great customer experiences to prioritizing great employee support. We’ve seen recent corporate examples like the Texas Roadhouse CEO giving up his salary to pay employees’ wages. As one restaurant owner said, “At present, the focus has shifted to being available to provide our teams with basic resources to survive and hopefully return to work in the near future.”

Transportation

The shipping and transportation industry has also been adapting to a new set of expectations to meet increased demand. For some, that looks like extended shifts and freight prioritization for essential goods only. Ultimately, the focus is on getting goods to their destination and keeping everyone safe and healthy. Those who support the shipping and trucking industries have shifted emphasis from building business to only supporting the business they have. Many industries have shifted their focus in this way, taking note of what is important in this time of human crisis. The human truth in the transportation sector shifted from the extremely important job of ramping up the industry’s fleet to move more products and goods to focusing on the safety of the people doing the work. Yes, goods need to reach their destination, but not at the expense of jobs and the health of those who keep the industry moving forward. A shipping company employee said, “I see our company doing all they can to keep every person employed if possible while keeping them safe and also keeping our customers safe. It really does keep me going. We feel very grateful for that.”

Helping the Food System: We Can All Play a Role

There is an increased sense of accountability to ourselves and our communities. This is true within the foodways system and beyond. There is a distinct shift taking place, inspiring us to be more human-centered in our daily lives. As one manager explained, “I try to be more understanding and focus on them (the staff) more as people rather than their function within the operation of the business.”

There is room for everyone to make an impact – and for all of us to feel connected by this event while we are all physically distanced from each other. This is a time for us to appreciate the people behind the scenes providing structure and support for the systems we rely on and not take what we have for granted. What can this teach us? As humans, we can all strive to practice mindfulness and be more grateful. We can do more for each other. As part of the foodways system, we must also look out for each other as we continue supporting individuals, families and organizations across the nation.

As managers, you can look for the helpers in your organization and on your teams. Make sure they are supported and have what they need to be successful. We are all experiencing the impact from this pandemic in multiple roles – employee, parent, consumer, friend and neighbor. We’re all speaking a new shared language – one of community, adaptability and gratitude. Let us not forget this newfound appreciation. As marketers, it is our responsibility to find the human truth in how our world will be changed and apply the lessons we have learned.

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