Covid-19 Crisis Management The Future of Produce Supply Chains in the Post-Covid Era

September 16, 2020 10:41 am, Published by , Leave your thoughts

Stronger Together US webinar series

During the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the produce industry overall was successful in getting food into grocery stores and other retail settings providing the essential provisions needed by communities. At the same time, the media exploded with questions about the safety of food workers and images of food destruction at a time when many unemployed people were struggling to afford groceries. Stories covering Covid-19 outbreaks in the meatpacking sector drew attention to the circumstances faced by agricultural workers in all sectors, many from migrant communities and undocumented but deemed as “essential” to feeding America.

In the last installment of the Covid-19 Crisis Management webinar series, Stronger Together US welcomed three speakers to discuss the future of the food supply chain in US fresh produce. Ed Treacy, Vice President, Supply Chain and Sustainability at the Produce Marketing Association, Kent Shoemaker, CEO at Lipman Family Farms, and Anabella de Freeman, Senior Manager, Sustainability Strategic Initiatives Produce at Walmart shared their perspectives on how we can begin to “build back better” to create a more sustainable, equitable and resilient system, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

Recognizing the diversity across the produce supply chain, Stronger Together US asked each panelist to give one thing a small or large company/farmer can do to be more sustainable, resilient, and equitable. Across the board, the panelists agreed that a focus on people will make organizations, large or small, more sustainable, resilient, and equitable. Among the key points:

  • People First – An organization that wants long-term success must have a people-centric approach in all its operations. Employee relations should be in a process of continuous improvement. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve got everything figured out,” said Shoemaker. “Become open to new and better ways of engaging people.” Programs and initiatives should be reviewed often to make sure they are current and relevant. “The pandemic has also shown us that the labor supply chain is a real life-line,” de Freeman added. “People in retail, food services, and deliveries are front-time essential workers. It’s not a cliché to say, ‘human resources is the most important department in a company’.”
  • Tell your story – It has never been more critical for organizations to share their sustainability story to attract and retain employees, clients, customers, and investors. “This is the tightest labor market our industry has faced,” said Treacy. “The majority of [farm] jobs can’t be done from home.” Therefore, organizations need to differentiate themselves as good employers and do everything they can to prove they are committed to people and sustainability. 
  • Greater transparency through technology – The consumer appetite for proof that the way their food was produced meets their social values will become increasingly important and buyers will place more value on that information. The price will not be the sole driver. Farmworkers are also using technology to gain greater transparency about work opportunities. Through the use of mobile phones and social networks, they know where they can feel safe, who the good crew leaders are, and where the good crops are.  
  • Social responsibility –   The group recognized that responsible recruitment and responsible labor practices are part of taking a people-first approach to sustainability and building resilience, especially given the labor shortages. The group also discussed ways to drive the right market incentives for responsible recruitment and how to recognize leaders in a more effective way than the market has done in the past.  Companies should look for mechanisms to communicate to current and potential employees or customers.  [Produce suppliers seeking help in telling their story may consider the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit as a way to communicate with buyers]. Panelists also agreed that moving forward from the pandemic there will be a stronger connection between social responsibility and purchasing. Predictions and ideas for organizational improvement included establishing industry frameworks (for example, the Ethical Charter), using blockchain technology, using audits that look at the complete supply chain from beginning to end, and building mechanisms for market differentiation (such as certification). [Farm Labor Contractors seeking an independent audit to certified standards for customer, investor and shareholder reassurance may consider the Clearview]. Ms. de Freeman noted that many of her company’s suppliers have already started self-reporting and conducting responsible sourcing audits. These audits will continue to have more weight as buyers make purchasing decisions on data which, despite the risk of audit fatigue, are overall helpful for identifying good players in the industry.  
  • Register now for our next webinar “Working Together to Eliminate Recruitment Fees for Workers in US Agriculture”, September, 29th .
  • Click here to access the free global Practical Guide to Responsible-Recruitment During and Post Covid-19 created by Stronger Together and the Responsible Recruitment Toolkit.

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