The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just turned the world upside down for private citizens. Food suppliers and retailers are also struggling to find normalcy and a path forward in a chaotic time.
“Every person has been touched by this,” said Andrea Karns of Karns Food Stores, a regional chain with outlets across central Pennsylvania. “I went from planning Easter promotions to asking what is social distancing and how do we incorporate that in our stores.”
Karns and other central Pennsylvania food suppliers urged patience as supply chains stabilize after weeks of uncertainty, and precautions are taken to promote health and safety.
They made their remarks during a virtual forum hosted by Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., which gave local food suppliers and retailers a chance to inform viewers and answer their questions.
Karns said retailers have had to get creative to find solutions to the panic buying of items such as canned goods, toilet paper and cleaning products.
“We’re partnering with companies to fill in gaps on the shelves,” Karns said. Instead of bulk purchases that don’t make sense for consumer needs, Karns has been working with suppliers to break up bigger items into smaller packaging to fill the need.
“It’s taking an existing relationship and reforming it,” Karns said.
By working with local businesses to find creative solutions, Karns has been able to keep the shelves stocked.
One method they’ve employed since the pandemic began is reaching out to restaurant suppliers and buying their supply of produce — such as asparagus — and selling it in the stores instead of the supplier taking the loss while many restaurants remain closed.
What consumers don’t know, Karns said, is that retailers are also facing restrictions over how much of a product they can order from suppliers.
“We’re starting to see that let up,” Karns said, “but don’t hoard, it makes it worse for everyone around you.”
For local food suppliers such as Farmers on the Square, an outdoor farmer’s market in Carlisle, the focus has been on implementing Center for Disease Control and Department of Agriculture recommendations for safe transition of food during the COVID outbreak.
Farmers on the Square is still taking place, but with social distancing measures in place. Stands are not six feet apart and curbside pickup is available.
Jenn Halpin, director of the Dickinson College Farm, said that while they have gotten a lot of people asking how they can help during the pandemic, they aren’t taking volunteers right now to mitigate the risk.
Halpin, who studies food insecurity, said she’s seen a surge in home gardening and is working to develop strategies to help people grow their own food.
For those who don’t have a green thumb, Halpin said, “now is the time to invest in local agriculture” pointing to area farms with organic produce available.
At Project SHARE, an area food pantry and farmstand, it’s “about bringing food, but also hope,” CEO Robert Weed said.
The food bank is working with local school districts to make sure elementary and middle school age kids are fed on the weekend through its backpack program.
During Project SHARE’s most recent farmstand distribution, more than 200 families attended, Weed said, many of them looking for essentials they couldn’t find in the grocery stores.
Project SHARE will distribute again this Thursday and expects to see another increase in demand.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit said it is limiting the size of its volunteer team.
“Most of our core volunteers are seniors and vulnerable to COVID-19,” Weed said.
On their March 16 distribution date, Project SHARE volunteers had to work to implement changing CDC recommendations of no-contact distribution and pre-packaged food in just 24 hours.
Still, Weed says the reward of being able to help outweighs the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented.
“It’s much more than just putting food in the basket,” Weed said.