My heart goes out to the 200,000 people who are sick and the 4,000 who have died as of this writing. But the panic that briefly gripped all 330 million Americans was if they would be able to eat and feed their families during this unprecedented national crisis. And that panic was over in a day or two.
A lot has been going wrong since the first case of coronavirus arrived on these shores, but one thing that has gone remarkably right has been the response by the food & beverage industry. Faced with incredible demands for increased output, changes in production and personal selflessness, the thousands of people and companies who make up America’s greatest industry literally fed a sick nation.
For me and this magazine, the coronavirus story started with a story in our March issue about food and beverage company CEOs at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York meeting talking about some vague problem just starting in China. For some of the companies, it meant what they expected to be a brief factory closing, and for all it meant a slight dip in sales there, especially to restaurants. But it could never happen here.
It hit home for me when, hours before I was to catch my flight to Anaheim, organizers canceled Natural Products Expo West, my favorite annual show. That was done only “out of an abundance of caution,” and many thought the cancellation was an overreaction.
But it’s become clear in the month since that this coronavirus thing is out of our control. I’m writing this from my home, where I’ve been for the past two weeks and probably will be for a while; nobody knows for how long. I realize how fortunate I am that I can work from home and that I still have a job while so many have lost theirs ... at least temporarily and some maybe forever. While the food processing industry is on overdrive, the restaurant business is on life support. Many of those businesses will never recover.
If there’s one good thing to come of this, I hope it will be a return to unity. No matter which political party you ally with, you’ve got to admit the public discourse has gotten unnecessarily nasty lately. I’m not just talking about politicians either. There are chasms between the races, between religions, ethnic groups, social classes, even between the sexes. This coronavirus ignored all those distinctions. Prince Charles had it. Illinois’ first fatality was a woman from the south side of Chicago. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson got it in Australia. What an equal-opportunity villain this plague is.
It was that commonality of risk and reminders to look out for your neighbors that forged unity. “We’ll get through this together” and “you’re home but not alone” were mottos. The response trumped self-righteousness, intolerance, grievances. There were some scofflaws who went on with wedding receptions, big backyard parties, even church services, but they were condemned by people from across the spectrum. This virus was more likely to punish them than the millions who obeyed the rules and stayed home.
While the headline heroes of America’s response justifiably are the medical professionals, the food industry is not far behind. People’s first reaction was to rush to their supermarket and stock up. I even heard a report of people buying guns because they heard there was only a three-day supply of food in this country. Rather than stay home where it was safe, most food company employees were on the job, probably cranking up their efforts to keep store shelves stocked. The pressure to meet these sudden demands must have been intense, but America’s food companies and their employees were equal to the task.
Kudos, too, to the companies that are paying employees bonuses and doing charitable works in their communities. We have a story that lists them here.
One common comment about the situation that I don’t like is calling this “the new normal.” None of this is normal, and none of it will last ... except, I hope, the vigilance to never let this happen again.