When Publix Super Markets heard that produce and dairy farmers were hurting, the company didn’t hesitate to come to their aid, said Curt Epperson, business development director for produce and floral.
In April, Publix launched a program to buy surplus fruit, vegetables and milk from farmers that have seen demand plummet from customers forced to shut down during the coronavirus crisis. The Southeastern supermarket chain donates the rescued product to Feeding America food banks throughout its seven-state market area.
Reports have continued to emerge of farmers being compelled to throw away huge amounts of unsold produce and milk, a situation arising from mass closings of schools, restaurants, hotels, cafeterias and other foodservice customers amid the pandemic. At the same time, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has increased food insecurity nationwide, putting more pressure on food pantries to help hungry Americans.
“Once we started getting wind of this, we knew timing was critical, and we knew we had to react quickly,” said Epperson, a 35-year Publix veteran, who is spearheading the program on the produce side. “It really all started with our CEO, Todd Jones. Once he gave us the nod, our teams rallied, and we went to work on finding ways that we could provide much-needed relief to farmers and families in need.”
Epperson said Publix focused its assistance on three areas: source, purchase and deliver. And the program, kicked off April 21, has made tremendous progress. After the first week, Publix procured more than 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk for donation. That has since surged to 2.25 million pounds of produce and 200,000 gallons of milk, with the product going to 15 Feeding America food banks.
“The situation certainly has been unusual. But for Publix, it has been kind of a natural response for us because, as a food retailer, feeding people is what we do best,” said Epperson. “When we realized there was a need, Publix wanted to lend a helping hand, and not just to the farmers that we do business with every day, but also to farmers across all of our states.”