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Coronavirus upends the U.S. food system

LOS ANGELES — Near downtown Los Angeles, a meat processing plant ramped up production even as it worked to keep frontline employees separated from one another. In Salinas, Calif., a lettuce grower hustled to redirect supply after being forced to plow under unused crops.

In the Bay Area, a food distributor that previously served restaurants started selling produce boxes directly to consumers. Near the Mexico border, a food bank expanded distribution to meet an explosion of need. And in Hollywood, a nonprofit that has served sit-down meals to homeless people for 33 years shifted to takeout.

“We’ve completely had to change what we’re doing,” said Sherry Bonanno, executive director of the Hollywood Food Coalition. “We just keep adapting and adjusting.”

In less time than it takes a farmer to plant and harvest a head of lettuce, the nation’s entire food industry has been flipped on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. An intricate system for matching supply with demand, established over decades, has been thrown out of whack just as unemployment and food insecurity are skyrocketing among families.

The fallout has been particularly severe in California, where more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown — and where hunger and homelessness were already deeply entrenched.

In response, a vast network of food producers, distributors, retailers and advocates have been scrambling to find a new equilibrium, to shore up the nation’s food supply and their own bottom lines while reducing waste and want.

In dozens of interviews, farmers, truckers, grocery executives, restaurateurs, food service providers and food bank administrators from Northern California to the Imperial Valley said the effort has been exhausting, but worth it.

THE FARMERS

It all went haywire March 16, when Gov. Gavin Newsom asked restaurants to close their doors. The food service industry, which supplies restaurants and bars, as well as schools, hotels, production studios and catering services, immediately tanked. As nervous shoppers flocked to grocery stores to stockpile food, retail demand shot up, but not enough to make up for all the lost demand from restaurants.

“It was just a crazy swing,” said Scott Grabau, president and chief executive of Tanimura & Antle, a Salinas-based lettuce producer.

Crops planted months before based on pre-pandemic demand spoiled without buyers. Billions of dollars’ worth of produce went to waste, much of it tilled back into the soil, said Cathy Burns, CEO of the Produce Marketing Assn., which represents produce companies.

Grabau’s company, which grows year-round in California and Arizona, stopped harvesting entire fields. He’s thinking about planting more iceberg and romaine, which grocery shoppers buy, and less of the boutique leaves used by chefs.

Grabau’s team has had to be more agile than ever, packaging produce to fit orders that customers keep changing on the fly. He’s constantly in communication with his employees in the field.

“It’s a walkie-talkie call that says, ‘Hey, stop doing this. This order increased, so start doing this instead,'” Grabau said.

THE MEAT

PROCESSORS

Few parts of the supply chain have been hit as hard as meat processing. Dozens of plants have been shuttered due to coronavirus outbreaks, prompting President Trump last week to order facilities to stay open as a matter of national security. Unions and others have objected, pointing to thousands of infections among meat workers.

Zack Levenson is chief operating officer for Golden West Food Group, based in Vernon, which produces beef, pork and chicken products.

The company, which has not had a known coronavirus infection in any of its facilities, slowed production for a couple of weeks to protect employees but has since maneuvered to expand capacity by millions of pounds of meat per week, Levenson said.

By good fortune, the company just weeks before the pandemic had commissioned the conversion of old dry-packing space in its main facility into more raw-meat processing space. That proved crucial for ramping up production at a time when employees had to be spaced farther apart, Levenson said.

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