When most food service across the country shut down nearly a year ago, $5 billion-worth of produce was suddenly stuck in the food chain.
“Trucks were turned around on their way to the customers,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at United Fresh Produce at the USDA Ag Outlook Forum last week. Those early disruptions have resulted in a “significant amount” of invoices that remain unpaid, which “continues to concern us in a very significant way.”
The fresh produce chain was ill-equipped to pivot suddenly. Fruits and vegetables are packaged differently for wholesale versus retail; sales relationships don’t often exist between traditional wholesale suppliers and retailers (and they don’t form overnight); and retailers weren’t prepared for the dramatic panic buying.
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Relief programs helped sustain many businesses. But the experience drew attention to the need for more diverse business models, Guenther said. Packers could expand distribution channels to family packs and grab-and-go, for example, and farmers could grow more types of produce. Building greater resiliency into the supply chain is also a focus.