The concept of a pandemic has been portrayed in movies, sci-fi books, medical journals and contemplated by agencies across the globe. The big picture issues are obvious: food scarcity, stress on medical supplies and services, global cooperation and competition for resources, social upheaval, loss of life, and the light at the end of the tunnel… resolution and rebuilding.
While it makes for good entertainment, discussion, and agency planning, there are subtle aspects to a pandemic that are not so obvious. I have found myself in a living and working situation that was previously unimaginable.
When we learned of the contagious and life-threatening nature of COVID, our first thought was to protect our elders. I brought my mother home immediately and prepared to keep her safe. Never did I imagine that my children would urge me to remain at home. Our company team members agreed. The older generation? Me?
After a difficult first week at home, I realized that in my entire life I had never stayed home for a non-medical reason. Sheesh, I had only recently started to take a vacation, and even those were combined with work. The stress of working from home, household chores, and serving as caregiver was suffocating. I watched the cameras, the computer, the cell phone, all to fulfill my roles at work. My concern for my colleagues’ safety was overwhelming. Overriding guilt at not being on the battlefield could not be overcome.
After a month or two, we fell into efficient remote work habits. Sure, I missed the energy and the camaraderie of being there, but being one large step removed helped me see the forest through the trees. Idea after idea came to mind. Procedures could be streamlined. Personnel could be put to their better uses. Every aspect of the business operations became clearly visible. A big change there, a little tweak here. Efficiency maximized with each step. Another way we can get food to those without. Zoom calls while I brought tea to Mom. Relatable enough that otherwise unprofessional behavior became acceptable.
Our company was not affected by the restaurant and hospitality business closures. We primarily sell to wholesalers and retail customers. After analysis, we decided to add a foodservice department, which is now ready for business re-openings. We increased imports from additional growing and manufacturing regions. We hired new team members from outside our traditional departments. We had the opportunity to fine tune what we have done for 113 years, while we strategically diversified our product line, vendors, customers, and staff. We downsized… and we expanded.
Time will tell where we hit the mark and where we missed the mark. But now I know that a view from afar can be far more revealing than touching and feeling every detail.
It is time to share what we have learned — the defeats, the victories, proactive defense preparation.
Positive changes have been made on a regional and national level. Food waste is an operational dilemma in the produce industry, but with food re-distribution resources, sustainable packaging and sustainable practices more available, it is now easier to reduce food waste.
This pandemic highlighted the food insecurity that is prevalent throughout our country. New, efficient food programs have been created, and it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure they continue to distribute fresh produce to those in need. When SGS attained a Gold Level Zero Waste certificate, there were far fewer distribution options in place. The industry should fulfill its responsibility to use all edible product. One of the biggest joys of working in this business is getting healthy product from the farm to the people.
Hopefully, the vaccines will permit us some time to contemplate our experiences so we can prepare to move forward and take preventive measure for a safer future and more organized response. Perhaps we practice rolling staff and operational schedules to keep contact at a minimum and anticipate a percentage of unavailability. Other PPE and safe workplace procedures specific to wholesalers should be developed and implemented.
The issue of food safety has always been at the forefront, but now we see how globally significant it can be. The existing standards and enforcement, while strict and far reaching, may need another look. Tracing and recall efforts can be improved. Voluntary recalls are vague and confuse the industry and the consumer. Voluntary recalls have become so commonplace in the media that the public may not take a dangerous recall as seriously as necessary.
It is time to share what we have learned — the defeats, the victories, proactive defense preparation. The experts say this will not be the last pandemic, and the perishable food supply chain is so critical to survival that we need to place this as a high priority. This publication is a good place for industry members to share ideas and seek feedback.
We mourn the loss of friends and associates. We rejoice at the appearance of vaccines. We quietly recognize the strength of our company, our families, and our community in times of crisis. We can imagine a world that is unimaginable, but we take comfort in knowing that our industry, our people, step up to each challenge.
Carole Shandler is the president of Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co., a fifth-generation produce wholesaler in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to the Los Angeles Whole Produce Market. The company was founded in 1907.
Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.