Industry Viewpoint: Taking stock of key industry issues
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a ripple effect of devastating consequences for the produce industry. Long-time challenges like feeding children healthy fruits and vegetables, resolving labor issues, and understanding global trade implications have become magnified under the unprecedented circumstances of our global pandemic. With a critical election around the corner, all eyes are on our nation’s capital and the key industry issues at stake.
Workforce Availability and Safety
The produce industry continues to face obstacles in workforce availability, worker safety, and increased government requirements at the federal, state, and local levels.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, at United Fresh and others in agriculture’s urging, USDA announced that foreign workers were allowed to enter the U.S. as members of the essential ag workforce, with prioritization for agricultural workers attempting to enter the United States under an H-2A or H-2B visa, regardless of their previous work history. Creating a safe and stable work environment must be prioritized for workers of all classifications to ensure that consumers can continue to have access to the wide array of products they and their families rely on.
Personal protection equipment to protect workers is still scarce and the alignment with FDA and CDC recommendations varies by state/county. PPE is needed by farms, food manufacturers, distributors and retail stores to protect workers from the risks they are taking by reporting to work as Critical Infrastructure Essential Employees.
Challenges exist also around ensuring physical distancing, staggering workers and decreasing line speeds/throughput in order to decrease worker density. The issue of our workforce has raised new and unpredictable concerns that need to be addressed. As United Fresh continues to work with Congress and the administration on challenges related to COVID-19, we will continue to prioritize, first and foremost, protecting our employees to ensure that consumers have access to safe, affordable food, as always.
The pandemic has completely changed how schools are operating, specifically, with school meal programs that serve more than 42 million meals a day. This new set of challenges has meant our industry has needed to respond to sustain the gains of fresh produce consumption in nutrition programs in the age of COVID-19.
The nation’s child nutrition programs provided meals and snacks to millions of children — including through school breakfast and lunch, afterschool snacks and supper, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), where families purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at retail locations.
“The largest restaurant in town,” schools served more than 30 million students lunch daily, and an additional 12 million breakfasts, providing ample opportunities for access to full servings of fruits and vegetables, making them a strong current customer, and building the palates for the next generation of produce consumers. Schools’ shift to virtual learning in the spring and the multitude of serving styles this fall (a week’s worth of meals to go, meals in the classroom, socially distanced cafeterias, etc.) have forced schools to reinvent the way they provide meals, and accordingly, how they source fresh fruits and vegetables. In order to sustain the gains of ensuring all students have access to a wide variety of fresh produce, regardless of distribution styles in the new school year, schools, industry and the government will need to come together to ensure the necessary resources are available — from flexibilities, new and innovative products, and additional funding.
The U.S. fruit and vegetable industry and American consumers are highly dependent upon international trade. With consumers today demanding year-round availability of produce regardless of geographical growing seasons, exports and imports of fresh fruits and vegetables play a critical role in business viability of fresh produce providers.
The pandemic has hindered foreign market opportunities and expansion for the U.S. produce industry, as specific patterns of trade vary greatly among different commodities. Additionally, some parts of the domestic produce industry continue to face challenges and business strains from foreign market competitors where growing seasons overlap and cost of production varies.
There will be many lessons to learn from how agriculture and food systems in international countries have addressed COVID-19 and how it has impacted global trade and relationships with the U.S.
The Power of Fresh
Despite these challenges, United Fresh and industry partners have worked to drive new solutions to help the fresh produce industry keep the supply chain moving and find financial relief for companies devastated by the crisis. Today, the produce industry is never more instrumental in feeding the world, with more than $4.5 billion in government funding invested in supporting our industry during the pandemic. However, the work has only just begun.
Hundreds of industry leaders will gather online during the United Fresh Washington Conference to share the importance of our essential industry’s impact on jobs, growth, and meeting America’s need for food and nourishment this September. Virtual Congressional meetings with the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate will allow you to advocate for the future of our industry.
(Ben Massoud is the communications manager for the United Fresh Produce Association)