APCO alumnus Howard Pulchin co-authored this piece.
The COVID-19 crisis has put a unique spotlight on food and food systems, revealing both strengths and weaknesses across sectors and practices. In some ways, it has placed consumers on a level playing field, but also exposed some deep inequalities. The pandemic and its aftermath have forced us to reconsider many aspects of our life and our society, not the least of which is the way we feed ourselves. As we try to recover, the most innovative food companies will jump at the chance to lead that conversation rather than suffer the consequence of a corporate misstep. So where should they start?
- The first and most important is to focus on their own employees, whose hard work in challenging conditions has gained new recognition and respect. While the relationship between food producers and their workers has historically been complex and often challenging, now is the time to reexamine those relationships and commit to a fresh start.
- Another point to consider is the way products are marketed. Do brands talk about their products as luxuries or as part of the fabric that holds us together? As many consumers confront empty shelves or unaffordable prices for the first time, they’ll be rethinking what constitutes necessities in a way that may last beyond the current crisis.
- A myriad of forces has driven up the cost of many staples, while countless households are struggling with financial insecurity. Food companies should be aggressive in explaining what’s going on and what they’re doing to mitigate price increases.
Food is fundamentally about much more than nutrition. It’s about culture, tradition and heritage. It brings together family and friends during times of celebration as well as grief. For some it has become a status symbol, but for others who struggle with food insecurity, it can be a source of anxiety rather than comfort.
In some ways the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced those ideas. It has also forced many to confront scarcity for the first time. We’ve seen cracks in our food supply chain, a shortage of workers to harvest food and silos in retail and wholesale food distribution that have left farmers without customers, even while store shelves remain empty.
Food companies and suppliers—from farmers and processors to distributors and grocery stores—are also under new scrutiny. The way they treat their workers and keep them safe are under laser focus. And the way they manage their supply chains and whether they remain agile and flexible are distinguishing those who are forward-thinking and who will ultimately prevail.
The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the vital and irreplaceable role food companies play in our lives, yet these same companies often lag behind other industries, like tech, when it comes to recognition for innovation and admiration. As we all confront the reality of scarcity, the opportunity exists to tell new stories about the way the food industry has adapted and will continue to adapt as we adjust to a new world.
The food industry has the chance to rewrite the script for how to communicate about something so fundamental to all our lives. The companies that seize that chance—those that lead the conversation about the role of food in our lives and the importance of those who supply it—are the ones that will emerge from this period stronger and more able to deliver on their promise to consumers.