Supply chain’s role in minimizing food insecurity – Part 2 of 5

The COVID crisis caught the food supply chain off guard, but history doesn’t have to repeat itself when the next big crisis rears its head

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This is the second of five articles that breaks down the key issues that all supply chain managers should focus on as they emerge from COVID-19 and carve a path forward for their organizations. You can read Part 1 here.

The coronavirus pandemic has left millions of American families without stable employment and more than 54 million people—including 18 million children—at the risk of experiencing food insecurity this year. Defined as a household with limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life, food insecurity impacts more than 37 million individuals (including more than 11 million) children in the U.S. every year, and even without a global pandemic in full force, according to Feeding America.

Food insecurity is not a new issue. Where the supply chain industry has taken measures to avoid foodborne contamination with impressive track and trace success stories, we seem to have done less proactive work to ensure a steady food supply to those who need it most. This issue came to light early during the COVID pandemic, when the number of people experiencing food insecurity jumped significantly. Today, we are about to experience more of the same as various COVID-19 relief federal measures expire or are set to expire.

The problem impacted individuals of all ages, races, and socioeconomic classes. For example, when elderly individuals who had no access to grocery delivery quickly found themselves unable to safely obtain the groceries they needed to live on, we saw neighbors mobilizing efforts to help keep food on their tables through the crisis. This is just one example of how swiftly situations can turn when a global pandemic comes into view.

The humanitarian supply chain
Figuring out how to feed people who deal with food insecurity has largely been left up to the nation’s food banks which, of course, rely heavily on charitable contributions of both companies and individuals. And where this is seen as a working solution during “normal” times, it fell short during black swan events like COVID where food insecurity rates have doubled or tripled compared to pre-COVID rates, according to a rapid research report from the Institute for Policy Research. With long-lasting quarantine measures, both food insecurity and waste simultaneously expanded, highlighting an overt flaw in our food supply chains. As companies moved to shore up their own operations and supply chains—mobilizing drivers, warehouses, grocers and farmers to meet the new demand—the humanitarian supply chain was left to fend for itself.

Food insecurities can emerge at different points along the supply chain and we have to be ready to respond at each stage. At the point of production, the insecurity is created because the food doesn’t stop growing. If the farmer can’t get it delivered to the market because packaging sizes and expensive transportation resources made it too costly, the food goes to waste. Even if the food does make it to retail outlets, often customers can’t or won’t pay the higher prices (driven up by the higher transportation costs), then it will sit idle on the shelves. This results in the baffling combination of simultaneous excessive food waste and lack.

Social distancing in the workplace also comes into play here. If you can’t run full shifts in the warehouse, then productivity levels decrease and less food makes it through the supply chain. With social distancing expected to be a part of our new normal for some time, this is an issue that nearly all food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are grappling with right now.

Finally, at the point of consumption, the problem can be further exacerbated by the fact that grocers didn’t realize people would converge on their stores to buy a month’s worth of food. Even months later, store shelves are conspicuously bare (or even empty) in some categories as retailers work to get their supply chains back to pre-COVID performance levels.

Closing the supply-demand disconnect
The supply chain’s inability to get itself together fast enough starts with the farmer whose tomatoes are rotting on the vine to the consumer who buys three bags of fresh apples and only winds up consuming one of those bags (and throws the rest away).

With COVID, the issue wasn’t the absence of food in the supply chain; it was an oversupply of food in the wrong places. While farmers were experiencing extreme surplus due to reduced commercial demand from schools and restaurants, grocery stores struggled with delayed deliveries and shortages, and food banks faced unprecedented demand and shortages of donated food. This disconnect between supply and demand led to a lot of food waste in certain areas, and massive food insecurities in others. With no one to connect the dots between these two problems, the problem mounted.

Some companies stepped up quickly to try to solve the problem. In Michigan, several food and agriculture businesses donated food and funds to the state’s food banks. Kroger’s expanded Dairy Rescue Program - in partnership with dairy cooperative suppliers and farmers - pledged to donate 200,000 gallons of milk to Feeding America food banks through the end of summer. In the Southeast, for example, Publix launched a COVID-inspired initiative purchasing more than 5 million pounds of produce from local farmers and donating these to Feeding America member food banks in the company’s operating area. Publix has had a long history of direct relationships with area food banks, donating more than $2 billion in food since 2009. These examples illustrate a consistent awareness of economic and social welfare as the supply chain actively functions to utilize its secondary channel, sending food to food banks versus wasting it.

In another example, a group of University students created FarmLink - a grassroots charitable organization working to alleviate the food availability differentials created by the pandemic. According to their website, “FarmLink is innovating a new supply chain to transport surplus produce from farms to food banks in need. 100% of donations to FarmLink are used to purchase produce and pay the wages of farmers and truckers.” These students essentially fund a distribution operation focused on picking up surplus produce from farms, boxing it up, and delivering it to food banks. These examples did make me wonder, “where is the supply chain profession in all of this?” At the time of its writing, Uber Freight was the only named transportation company identified on the project website as a partner. “Have we really missed the boat on this one?” I asked myself.

Is it possible that we stayed so focused on keeping our companies financially afloat as many secondary channels typically diverted for humanitarian purposes were redirected or nonexistent during the pandemic? Put simply, did our normal source of backup basically disappear and thus we stopped thinking creatively?

Putting good ideas into action
Going forward, we have to look beyond risk management that focuses on simply “keeping the lights on,” and incorporate a real social awareness angle to our risk assessment plans. After all what is the point of our corporations’ survival if the social impact in our communities is lacking? I once heard someone mention that the pandemic made 2020 the year of the supply chain, as popular media ran stories and articles about the importance of supply chain management to daily life.

Specific to the food supply chain, what can we do with this increased consumer community awareness? Let’s ensure that even as we work around the clock to ensure that our organizations don’t go belly up during this and the next crisis, we also focus on the betterment of society. Let’s set an example for the upcoming generation of supply chain professionals about the expanded value we offer - making social welfare a focal point in their education, work, and lives.

There’s definitely an opportunity to establish supply chain driven social welfare units centered on ensuring survival of all stakeholders through a second COVID crisis; partnering with governments to ensure good public-private sector alignment; and encouraging people to come up with ideas for surviving the next COVID. We just have to get creative. As supply chain professionals, it’s our job to come up with an engine that allows great ideas to be put into action.

As few examples, Congress introduced two new programs at the onset of the pandemic: SNAP Emergency Allotments (EAs) and P-EBT that would allow 5 million children to benefit from additional resources to purchase food. The supply chain community can take this a step further by mobilizing resources to connect produce and dairy farms to food banks, and even sometimes to consumer household collection points.

We already have a flagship emergency relief logistics organization in ALAN. Supported by donations, the American Logistics Aid Network was established in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. ALAN mobilizes humanitarian relief by connecting logistics service providers to federal agencies (like FEMA) to deliver supplies to disaster areas . Clearly, transportation assets are needed. Perhaps in exchange for the government stimulus funds, we can task larger carriers with the responsibility of providing trucks in the event of a national emergency like COVID. Trained drivers are also needed. Consider training a “logistics national guard” by creating a special force group of trained personnel - qualified and licensed operators – particularly commercial truck drivers that can serve to supplement industry shortages during large-scale crises.

Our professional organizations can partner with government agencies to create a slate of mandated emergency logistics and transportation inventory and assets. These can be “called up” and deployed through government-business engagements during times of crisis. More to come about these critical relationships in the next article in this series…

About the author: Yemisi Bolumole, Ph.D., CLTD-F is associate professor of supply chain management at the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University. Her areas of research emphasis include the policy and public sector implications for supply chain managers. A regular speaker at sundry professional events, Bolumole currently serves as Chair of ASCM/APICS’ CLTD certification exam committee. She can be reached at [email protected].

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