In this five-week series, “COVID-19’s Wake-Up Call: Food System Realities Reimagined,” experts from across the AVENIR GLOBAL network and global food system are exploring five new “food system realities” brought on by COVID-19, paired with reimagined possibilities and thought starters to help bring these possibilities to life.

Don’t forget to register for the Padilla and FoodMinds’ free, global webinar on May 28, 2020 (11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. ET/8:00 a.m.-9 a.m. PT). Registration is available here!

Reality: COVID-19 is exacerbating cracks across the global food system

Across the food system, we are seeing vulnerabilities exposed and emerging trends accelerated. The widespread suddenness of stay-at-home orders disrupted both traditional channels and the balance between supply and demand in unprecedented ways we hope to never experience again. However, we all know what George Santayana said about those who do not learn from history. Pre-COVID-19, all eyes were on enhancing efficiency, variety and convenience while reducing cost. And yes, we built for resiliency and flexibility, but not to the extent needed for a crisis of this magnitude. The weighting of these considerations will be evaluated differently going forward with new considerations added and procrastinated needs addressed.

What’s more, multiple shocks to the food system made it clear where gaps existed, particularly in delivering food to the general public. We have been aware of the conflict that in the U.S. we throw away 150,000 tons food each day while so many go hungry. The long lines at food banks put a spotlight on this, with many in line experiencing food insecurity for the first time. In April, we saw a one-week spike of 5000% in Google searches for “food pantry near me”. The speed and scale of the crisis overwhelmed traditional channels, and there was a lag in funding and resources for new ones to be established.

Reimagined: Food supply chains will morph into webs

As we look to better balance efficiency and resiliency, we have old and new tools to leverage. Expect to see further adoption of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technology, and an expanded use of blockchain to manage inventory transparently in real-time and leverage it for logistics planning more widely. Some regulations have been relaxed, and should be reconsidered to ensure they are there for the right reasons. Navigating the pros and cons of operating in national, regional and local supply chains, developing interconnected webs, and preparing for any impact leveraging connections and technology offers us a chance to reimagine what we were doing, and how we can improve. If a second wave does come, how better prepared will you be? 

Possible Paths Forward: How can your organization prepare for and build a better future?

In Tim Brown’s TED Talk on design thinking, he discusses finding the balance between desirability, feasibility and viability with a human-centric approach. Many companies were forced to take his advice of early prototyping to build in order to think. In the moving video, The Great Realization, the narrator explains why people did not go back to normal because they realized they “preferred the world we found than the one we left behind.”

The global supply chain is complex and not something easily reconfigured, so let’s begin by challenging conventional thinking and build for the future. The reasons for its current state are diverse and account for regulation, public policy, capitalism drivers and consumer preference. There is an opportunity to tap into entrepreneurial thinking, finding new ways to do business, plan for growth and strengthen the entire chain to be better braced for future challenges.

Pinpoint the cracks: Over the years, we have seen large consolidation throughout the food system, and we can expect to see more as a result of this crisis. What we also have seen is how smaller producers have succeeded, whether it is from having less dense operations, or being more nimble or open to finding new channels. Farmers supplying restaurants started selling direct-to-consumers through community supported agriculture shares (CSA) or opening up their farms to pick-up for local residents. The issues are complex and don’t discriminate based on size: large and small food processors and packers alike have faced challenges with capacity, demand and safety. Spiked demand at retail led to SKU rationalizing to prioritize most demanded items leaving small and niche CPG brands struggling for access to packaging lines.

There are, of course, inherent limitations to more nimble food systems. Plans are made months out from seed orders, planting allocation, animal birthing and more. They cannot be sped up or slowed down to any great extent. Without flexibility to quickly redirect in a viable way, we will continue to see food wasted while people are in need. Some new digital platforms quickly sprung up to connect suppliers and buyers that can be evolved into a permanent part of this web.

Strengthen bonds throughout your organization’s network and community. Many of the businesses that were able to shift quickly relied on relationships they had at local levels. For fresh produce, this might mean greater connection at higher levels between groups like Feeding America, United Fresh Produce and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to mobilize public/private partnerships to quickly get perishable food to areas of need. This includes connecting with partners or consumers who you might not have had a direct relationship with before.

Explore new channels and business models to provide diversity. E-commerce, curbside pickup and direct-to-consumer sales have surged. It will not continue at this level, but expect new consumers to continue to use it for part of their future behavior. How you deliver on it now can build loyalty for the long-run, so packaging should be reevaluated for transport, especially the last mile.

Build partnerships and evolve business plans to anticipate sudden disruption with contingency plans. Even businesses that had plans for disasters like hurricanes were scrambling with the scale and speed of March’s rapid closures. Investments in technology and infrastructure will provide better intelligence and independence in the supply chain. Innovation of indoor agriculture like vertical farming and aquaponics might see greater investment in a drive to reduce miles from the farm to the plate.

Finally, you need to be ready to tell the story of how you are building your business for the future. The solutions are not easy or obvious. You will need to explain to your key audiences where you are going and how you will get there. Suppliers, customers, employees and investors all need to be part of this journey to a more resilient and effective food system.

Interested in discussing how we can help bring these possible paths to life? Our team has expertise across the food system. We are in this together to build for resiliency – drop us a line at [email protected]

In the meantime, stay tuned for more and register here for our May 28 webinar. Next week, we’ll explore reality and reimagined possibility #3, focusing on how COVID-19 is rewiring our food experiences. Reality/reimagined possibility #1 is available here.