Grand opening general session

Produce industry is grateful to get together online

The United Fresh LIVE! virtual trade show kicked off yesterday, Monday June 15th, with the Grand Opening General Session. Tom Stenzel was joined by Michael Muzyk, President of Baldor Specialty Foods and Chairman of the Board, and keynote speaker Katie Fitzgerald, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Feeding America, in a discussion on the effects of the pandemic on businesses, the impact the produce industry has had in helping those in need, and what still could and should be done in the future.

Convention dedicated to industry’s essential workers
This year was the first year that the United Fresh Trade show went virtual, and while this might limit some aspects of a traditional trade show, it also brings forward many more opportunities. This event was made free and accessible for anyone in the industry to attend, even to those who aren't United Fresh members. Stenzel shared: “We have people from 75 countries around the world, in every time zone, joining us here for this virtual online convention. Unlike the usual in-person trade shows, where time for connecting is much more limited, the United Fresh LIVE! platform will be open 24/7 throughout the summer. We now have the opportunity to connect outside of normal business hours, from the comfort of our own offices or homes. This event brings new opportunities that we’ve never had before.”

The session was opened with a video that thanked and honored the frontline essential workers of the produce industry. “We normally begin by thanking sponsors, but today we want to thank a different group of people, a very important group of people. Thank you to our essential workers for all you’ve done throughout the pandemic and all you continue to do every day,” Stenzel said. The United Fresh LIVE! 2020 convention is dedicated to these essential workers in their honor.

Pivoting in a pandemic: Down to a 2-lane highway
Michael Muzyk spoke on the impact of the pandemic on the industry. “When I accepted this position, I thought I would be speaking from San Diego,” says Muzyk. “I had no idea the changes that were awaiting me and the whole country at the start of this year. I found myself in the epicenter of this thing called COVID-19, here in New York City. In just a matter of a few short days, the government would make a sweeping decision to shut down restaurants and hotels, corporate cafeterias, catering, sporting events and country clubs; the heart and soul of Baldor. We immediately set up a ‘war room’ and came up with our two main goals: to reinvent ourselves and increase our retail presence.”

“The fresh fruit supply chain is a 4-lane highway: two go to food service, and two go to retail,” Muzyk said. “With the foodservice highway completely shut down, the retail lanes became very congested and difficult to travel.” Baldor pivoted to begin direct-to-consumer home delivery, and while it was a challenge to change up their distribution model so extremely, they now have over 100,000 people signed up for their home delivery service. They have also increased their retail presence and started making steady deliveries of specific products to grocery stores.

The importance of community outreach
Muzyk also emphasized the importance of community outreach to help increase produce consumption across society. “Nobody is born knowing what pineapples taste like. We have to introduce children to this – but we don’t see many commercials around on television for fruits and vegetables. So, children who don’t have access to fresh produce at home have to be introduced to it at school. That is why it is part of our mission statement to provide fresh fruit and vegetables in schools across the country. Thomas McQuillan, Baldor’s VP of Strategy, Culture, and Sustainability said it best: ‘Giving out food is giving out love and giving out love is giving out peace. This city, this country, and this world need more peace,’” Muzyk shared.

While we will continue to face challenges, Muzyk emphasizes that the ability to adapt will be the number one survival technique. “That is what we are all doing here: adapting to change. I can’t tell you what the future will look like or who will win: will it be the restaurants, the big box stores, home delivery or something else? I don’t know. But I can tell you that food will win. We are on the winning team, and we are going to win,” he concluded.

America’s charitable food system hit from three directions
Katie Fitzgerald had only been in her position as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Feeding America for one and half months when the pandemic broke out, but with the help and support of the industry, and state and federal governments, not a single food bank ran out of food in those early weeks. “The impact of the pandemic on Feeding America could be described as a perfect storm,” she said. “It was a triple whammy: we saw unprecedented levels of demand, a dramatic decline in food donations and needed to adapt our distribution models almost overnight.”

Fresh produce makes up the largest category of food distributed by America’s foodbanks, Fitzgerald shared. “There is an emotional and intangible value to fresh produce, especially to people who experience hunger. This industry has been an enormous help throughout the pandemic in helping to deliver fresh produce to those in need: you’ve repacked bins of produce, like apples, into household sized bags to make distribution easier. You have washed literally tons of potatoes before delivering them to local food banks because we didn’t have the capacity for doing this. Our members are on track to receive 265 million incremental pounds of perishable product through the USDA Farmer to Families Food Box program, and we are poised to take another 550 million pounds as more boxes become available. We have distributed over 1.3 billion meals since March 1st, which is a 40% increase over this same time last year.”

“While we are grateful for these numbers and all of these efforts, it is not enough to scale the challenge ahead of us,” Fitzgerald continued. Feeding America worked together with a team of experts to forecast the need in the coming 12 months. “The network could face an 8-billion-meal gap over the next 12 months. We are in a marathon and need all hands on deck.”

Seniors are at a higher risk of experiencing food insecurity.

The pandemic has highlighted how close many Americans are to food insecurity. “We should never forget what it feels like to really be there for each other, even when we get to the other side of the pandemic, so we can achieve our vision of an America where no one is hungry. We are faced with an immense challenge and we are grateful to be able to work together with this powerful industry which is full of people and companies who share our passion to increase the consumption of produce during this pandemic, and beyond it,” Fitzgerald concluded.

Registration for United Fresh LIVE! is free. The community will continue to come together with morning fitness sessions, round table coffee talks, afternoon workshops and social receptions in the evenings throughout this week. To register, click here.

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