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.”

In Iowa, Dunker estimates about 20% of restaurants and bars will close permanently by March 2021. She also noted this downturn has hit rural communities especially hard as businesses in smaller communities are less likely to be replaced than those in large metro areas. Additionally, smaller towns have fewer options to begin with, meaning the loss of even one foodservice outlet can disproportionally impact re­­sidents of those areas.

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.

While the situation is dire for restaurants, Dunker noted it has sped up use of online ordering options and expanded delivery systems in the state. These are programs that will provide more dining options to customers going forward, and most will likely stay in place after the pandemic is gone.

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.

“In my business, producing and processing livestock, it requires a huge cooperative effort that doesn’t have the option to take a break,” Prestage said, noting employee health is vital to keeping the plants running.

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.

To watch a recording of this webinar and learn about two others in the IFBF 2020 Annual Meeting series, visit