There are some long lasting or even permanent changes to our food system, from farm to table, from the COVID-19 outbreak this year.
Everything from addressing worker and customer safety concerns to a greater dependence on technology and automation, along with a variety of changes, have gone into effect in the last 10 months, according to industry representatives during an Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) webinar last week. It was the first of three annual meeting webinars held this year in lieu of the IFBF annual meeting educational sessions.
The presentation, titled “Lessons learned responding to COVID-19,” featured Ron Prestage, president of Prestage Farms; Reynold Cramer, president and CEO of Fareway Foods; and Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of Iowa Restaurant Association (IRA).
One particularly hard-hit industry was restaurants and bars, which were forced to close or limit sales to to-go orders off and on throughout this year. “The outlook [for restaurants and bars] is bleak and very real,” Dunker said. “The fragility of the food system became very evident through this pandemic.”
A long recovery
“It’s going to take at least five years for the Iowa restaurant industry to recover, and in rural communities, those restaurants won’t come back,” she said.
Farm and factory changes
Prestage Farms, which both raises livestock and processes the meat, said making sure staff feel safe and protected has become and even bigger concern for the company.
“This situation has really shown a light on how critical the people working for you are, and let me tell you, we have great employees,” said Prestage.
Prestage Farms operates a pork processing facility in Eagle Grove and experienced slowdowns at the plant in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak.
He said workers being more spread out along the processing line is likely a permanent change and is now being included in the designs for a new turkey processing facility in North Carolina.
Keeping shelves full
Two major concerns facing Fareway stores as the pandemic spread this summer was maintaining supply chains and being a safe place for people to shop.
“We’re in constant communication with our suppliers,” Cramer said. “For the most part, our shelves are full.”
Cramer said self-cleaning options for carts and baskets are likely a permanent change. It’s part of helping customers feel safe.
“We are creating new ways to be efficient and provide a safe environment for customers,” Cramer said.
But, he noted, these changes cost money which could impact the company in the future.