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COVID-19 and food: Slowdowns, layoffs and one silver lining

Restaurants are struggling, affecting local producers. But many are acting quickly to minimize food waste and some have seen a surge in online orders.

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

I asked Food Weekly readers last week to let me know how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their work. The replies were illuminating. As you can imagine, the crisis is bringing significant hardship to parts of the industry. Elsewhere, it’s business as usual, at least for now. There are even growth opportunities for some.

Let’s start with those hit hardest: restaurant owners and their workers. "It’s very grim for the industry," said Anthony Myint, a chef and founder of several San Francisco restaurants. "Many [Bay Area] restaurants were barely making ends meet and struggling to stay afloat. I imagine there will be widespread closures regardless of any bailouts or relief."

As restaurants experience slowdowns or temporarily shutter, workers are losing their jobs. This will affect families across the United States, because more than 10 million people work in the food and beverage industry. Many of these workers have minimal savings, Myint told me. In 2018, the average salary for the nation’s 2 million servers was $17,672. By contrast, the U.S. poverty rate for a family of two in 2019 was $16,910.

(There are steps that all of us can take to support restaurants and workers during this time — see this Bon Appétit article for details.)

Restaurant closures are also affecting producers. "We have lost just about all of our restaurant business," said Lisa Poncia at Stemple Creek Ranch, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. "It’s hard not only for economic reasons, but we have such close relationships with all of our customers that this is weighing on our hearts very much." 

We have lost just about all of our restaurant business. It’s hard not only for economic reasons, but we have such close relationships with all of our customer that this is weighing on our hearts.
The silver lining for Stemple Creek, which uses regenerative agriculture practices to manage its pastures, is a seven-fold increase in online orders. "At first we were worried that we wouldn't be able to keep our supply chain in place — worried we wouldn't be able to get dry ice, keep our staff working, have our shipping partners working at full capacity. But we have ironed out the details."

Another sustainability-orientated producer — Terranova Ranch in California’s Central Valley, which has its own solar array and a four-acre wildlife reserve —  is producing fruits, vegetables, nuts and seed crops much as usual, albeit in a state of heightened anxiety. "No shelter in place for us," said Don Cameron, the ranch’s general manager. "We know more than ever that we need to produce."

Cameron’s concerns are about the coming months. "My worry is that as we are planting the new crop ... one of our workers gets sick and it either spreads or our workers refuse to come to work. This is a serious issue." The problem will be particularly acute if the illness strikes during the critical June-to-October harvesting window.

At the other end of the food supply chain, some foodservice companies have moved quickly to limit food waste as schools and other facilities close. Yet concerns about additional waste remain. 

"While our No. 1 concern is for the well-being of those affected," Dana Gunders, executive director of food waste nonprofit ReFED, wrote in an email to subscribers last week, "we also recognize that our collective response to this crisis — including buying food in bulk to guard against potential disruptions in supply chains; the forced closures of schools, restaurants, and other organizations that serve food; and more — is increasing the amount of food waste."

"And in many cases," added Gunders, "the food being wasted could have gone to the neediest among us through recovery and distribution programs." It’s a perennial problem, heightened during this moment of increased insecurity around income and food.

In an attempt to figure out how best to respond to this challenge, ReFED is asking individuals working in the food system to take a short survey on the challenges they are facing. If you can spare a few minutes, I’m sure they would appreciate hearing from you.

I’d also appreciate hearing more about how COVID-19 is impacting your work, wherever you sit in the food chain. Drop me a line at [email protected].

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