Andre LaMere is senior vice president of risk & safety at United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI). The views expressed here are those of the author and UNFI.
As America begins to slowly reopen, we all have to adjust to a new way of life, with half-empty restaurants, social distancing while shopping and wearing a mask when entering any business. One thing that should stay the same, however, is the availability of affordable, high-quality food.
During the depths of the pandemic, grocery store shelves remained stocked thanks to the tireless work of thousands of essential workers across the country. But the food industry’s work is far from done.
With many states beginning to see drastic upticks in COVID-19 cases after reopening, it is evident that we are not in the clear just yet. The producers, distributors and retailers that make up America’s food supply chain must continue doing all that they can to ensure Americans are able to access the products and supplies they need under any scenario.
At UNFI, we are proud to be one of the largest food distributors in North America with more than 21,000 associates, and we have been prioritizing pandemic-related safety and risk management efforts since COVID-19 began its spread around the world. Even before our associates were deemed “essential workers” by the federal government, their health and well-being were our top priorities. We believe that prioritizing all facets of safety is mission-critical to keeping the nation’s food supply chain fortified at all times, and protecting our associates and the communities we serve.
We strongly believe companies across the industry need to continue prioritizing robust safety and risk management practices to safeguard their employees and keep America fed. The growing number of COVID-19 cases in warm-weather states, including Florida and Texas, should reinforce that the summer is not a reprieve from the pandemic. There are several steps company leaders can take in the coming weeks and months to keep food flowing:
• First and foremost, companies must maintain close collaboration with the public sector — including both federal and state officials — to stay up-to-date on the latest guidance and insights regarding COVID-19. Closely coordinating with the public sector has enabled UNFI to stay ahead of the curve at our 59 distribution centers across North America. We continue to closely follow Centers for Disease Control guidance at all of our facilities and adjust quickly when new recommendations are issued. UNFI has also consulted directly with medical experts who specialize in assisting corporations with effectively incorporating health considerations into their employee policies and operational plans. These steps are something that all companies can undertake.
• Companies must continue to enforce strict hygiene and cleanliness protocols. UNFI has instituted and enforced rigorous workplace safety measures at our warehouses, including frequent handwashing, robust sanitization procedures and professional cleanings tailored to the impact at the location. We are also making protective gear and equipment, such as face coverings and gloves, widely available to our associates. Another important step companies can take is providing thermometers to associates to check their temperatures at home prior to coming to work and, where appropriate, conducting pre-shift temperature checks. Keeping our workforce safe is a joint effort — we count on our associates to make choices that reflect their commitment to staying healthy and protecting their co-workers.
• Lastly, companies must remain fully committed to strict social distancing and no-contact policies even when COVID-19 cases appear to be declining. To mitigate the risks of new outbreaks, we have established strict social distancing policies at all of our facilities and have installed partitions (where necessary), decals and signs to remind associates at all times that maintenance of social distancing is essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, we have focused on altering operating procedures that can be easily implemented to keep our employees safe. For example, we changed our delivery protocols for our drivers to allow them to keep making deliveries in a safe manner, protecting them as well as our customers.
Companies should also encourage associates to stay home — without any fear of losing their jobs — when they experience symptoms of COVID-19 or need to take care of a household or family member diagnosed with this virus. For any associates diagnosed with COVID-19, UNFI is fortunate to be able to provide paid leave and UNFI Assist, our 501(c)(3) foundation, which stands ready to provide additional assistance to associates who have been directly affected by COVID-19.
UNFI’s associates and our union partners have commended us for our proactive and thorough response to the pandemic, and we look forward to maintaining a safe work environment for all 21,000 of our valued associates moving forward. Focusing on safety and risk management is the best way for UNFI — and companies across the industry — to ensure America’s food supply chain remains strong throughout this national crisis.
For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.