The rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many fleets to juggle the safety of their teams, their products, and the people they serve. For perishable goods fleets such as Veritable Vegetable, the cards are stacked even higher against them.
As the crisis took hold, CEO Mary Jane Evans and her team at the California organic produce distributor were closely monitoring the news and information available and reacting as they learned anything new.
“There was a lot of misinformation out there, so it was important to seek out news outlets we could trust,” says Evans, who pointed out that San Francisco’s mayor was one of the first in the country to declare a state of emergency at the end of February and that California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a shelter-in-place in mid-March.
“Our agility and adaptability, and our community focus, allowed us to quickly put in place a plan for how to keep our staff safe while continuing to do our critical work. Now, we’re focused on playing our part to flatten the curve while performing our duties as an essential business.”
Although the onset of the pandemic forced many Veritable Vegetable customers, such as restaurants, bakeries, and caterers, to close, Evans saw the demand from the company’s retail clients surge for several weeks – a reaction to panic shopping and people stocking up for an undetermined time at home in the face of the global health crisis.
Even as demand increased for the organic products they haul, the pandemic has caused disruptions in the product trade in general. “Skilled labor shortages continue to threaten all areas of the food system – farm workers, truck drivers, and retail personnel,” says Evans, adding that her team is also experiencing longer dock delays for loading with some vendors.
Taking Action to Protect Employees from COVID-19
Veritable Vegetable did not wait to see what effect the pandemic would have on their employees. Early on, it assessed the risk areas for its 37 drivers, who pilot vehicles ranging from delivery vans up to tractor-trailers, and adapted protocols to reduce exposure as much as possible.
Precautionary measures have included:
- Sourcing organic, reusable face coverings for every staff member, including drivers.
- Implementing a “no signature” policy for deliveries to reduce contact.
- Outfitting trucks with sanitation caddies that include disinfectant, hand sanitizer and gloves.
- Implementing enhanced protocols for cleaning vehicle cabs before, during and after truck runs.
- Training drivers on sanitation best practices when using equipment and handling product, including frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer.
- Installing microwaves in all sleeper cabs, so drivers can prepare their own food, decreasing exposure in public spaces on the road.
“We also do the majority of our fueling onsite, which allows less frequent exposure at public fueling facilities,” adds Evans.
Veritable Vegetable has also reminded clients, customers, and everyone that is listening, that COVID-19 is not considered a foodborne pathogen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or by the U.S. Drug Administration.
As an essential business, the company must also keep office staff on hand to make sure pickups and deliveries are on the move and on schedule. Since hand sanitizer is a hard-found necessity these days, Evans and her team got a little creative when looking for a solution. Partnering with a grower that makes spirits, they came up with a biodynamic alcohol-based disinfectant spray for use in and around the facilities.
“We’re in a fortunate place, given the diversified nature of our customer base and services,” says Evans. “We’ve been able to adjust and respond quickly to a rapidly changing situation.”
‘Community is More Important Than Ever’
The company has also created an internal working group to develop new and existing community partnerships to support front-line workers and food access efforts. As a perishable goods distributor, Veritable Vegetable has a unique view of the entire food system. The company frequently checks in with its customer base, growers, and community partners to see how they are doing, what they are doing, and how they can help their businesses through the outbreak and beyond.
“Community is more important than ever right now. We have to lean on one another, share resources, lift each other up to get through this together,” she adds. “As a social enterprise with a strong mission, community wellness and social justice are the lenses through which we do all business. Though these times are unprecedented and extremely challenging, our approach to solving complex problems has not changed. It is, and always will be, fundamental to us to take into account the health and wellbeing of our staff, customers, and growers, to stay agile, and to lead by example.”