Perspectives on Covid-19 Crisis Management in US Produce

May 21, 2020 8:01 am, Published by , Leave your thoughts

Stronger Together US kicked off its webinars in May with an intensive look at how Covid-19 is affecting the produce industry. What is being done to ensure that we have sufficient workers and safety to secure our food production? What actions would make the produce supply chain more resilient and sustainable to future shocks?

Four speakers set the stage for how the produce industry is coping with the Covid-19 crisis. Titan Farms, a peach and vegetable grower, and California Harvesters, Inc., a farm labor contractor, outlined their profound shifts in activities, education and mitigation efforts to keep farmworkers safe as well as keep food production on track. They predict that important changes will be necessary to ensure that US produce can continue to be viable. Among the points they raised:

  • What’s good for workers is good for growers: creating good jobs in agriculture and protecting workers’ health, safety and welfare are pillars to success
  • Education must combat inconsistency: when Covid-related hygiene practices vary widely from state to state and farm to farm, it can create confusion for workers as they change jobs and have a different set of rules each time – a lack of consistency creates ripe conditions for disease spread
  • Information and two-way communication create better outcomes: workers may be exposed to rumors and false information (for example, through social media) and have less access to official news channels. Two-way communication between workers and employers provides an opportunity for questions to be answered and myths to be busted as well as open up pathways for better ideas to emerge
  • Funding is necessary to build protection for workers: many growers and farm labor contractors do not have the necessary financial reserves to weather this crisis and provide all workers with personal protective equipment, child care, food assistance and cash assistance; new approaches like a farmworker resilience and infrastructure fund are being created to bolster the lack of public/private infrastructure for creating safer farm work (click here for Mexico fund)
  • US produce production is at risk: in the coming months, the ongoing threat of border closures, logistics challenges, market disruptions and fluctuations, uncertainty about future food buyers, all combine to demonstrate the precarious position of domestic produce. Consumers, policymakers and donors need to collaborate to determine how to support the continued existence of produce production and avoid a dramatic reduction in capacity in the US.

The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division emphasized that the recent pause in field inspections (since mid-March) could have the unintended consequence of more noncompliance when inspections resume. Enforcement is important for produce and for ensuring good field sanitation conditions that will protect communities and farmworkers. Expect that field hygiene and sanitary housing will be emphasized once a method of safe inspections has been devised to protect inspectors and all those with whom they meet.

The US Department of State has been employing an “interview waiver” process as a temporary measure to process H-2A visas while also protecting embassy staff health and visa applicants’ health. Mission Mexico issues 90% of all H-2A visas for the US and it is planning a radio advertising campaign and a future “road show” to sending communities to help prevent abuses of the process. Report abuses or concerns to [email protected] or call 1.800.108.4724. An additional temporary step to assist employers is being offered by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is allowing the option for H-2A workers to transfer between employers without leaving the US. Queries about this program may be directed to [email protected].

In conclusion, panelists agreed that collaboration is needed to ensure that domestic food production is able to continue. No single actor can go at it alone and the private sector, including both retailers and producers, and government must act collectively to ensure that domestic food production can withstand the shock of the current and any future public health crises whilst protecting both workers and businesses.

Click here to listen again and to register for future Stronger Together US webinars: www.stronger2gether.org/us-events

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