First and foremost, I hope as you read this column you and your family are healthy and safe. The first six months of 2020 have been an extraordinary time and one that will be remembered by generations to come. As we look back to mid-March, the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic changed the world with the blink of an eye. The grocery and food distribution industries were designated as essential businesses and overnight our New Jersey food retailers and suppliers had the overwhelming responsibility to feed 9 million disconcerted residents seemingly all at once. Traditionally sharing half the food dollar with the restaurant and food service communities, the crush of business weighed heavily on grocery operators who basically became the only lifeline food business in an instant that pull from the same suppliers.
Panic buying by a startled public who were fearful of the uncertainty of the supply of food and household items, self-quarantined workers, rolling federal guidelines and restrictive state executive orders tipped the grocery industry sideways.
Over the years, the NJ Food Council planned and conducted exercises with members for a catastrophic event. We lived through Superstorm Sandy, Sept. 11, along with countless blizzards and power outages, but never did we anticipate the wrath of COVID-19 as its effects were a tsunami every day for three straight weeks crashing into the food supply chain.
We rolled with every wave, braced for every new challenge hourly, provided input and interpretation on every new industry executive order, served as a critical resource between members and our government and national partners, and sometimes just acted as a sounding board for members who tried to make sense of the crisis. Under the leadership of our new executive team, we hosted several emergency board of director calls to spitball these unprecedented challenges.
We quickly pushed and got passage of a law to halt product returns for the safety of our workforce, we sought the suspension of local reusable bag ordinances and we sent member communications and official government updates the moment they were released. Our state partners donated to NJFC 100,000 facial masks and we distributed this personal protective equipment to food retailers for their workers in two weeks time.
NJFC and our members were building the plane as we were flying it.
At the request of NJFC, Gov. Phil Murphy and his team quickly responded and created a special Food Supply Working Group for NJFC to interface with state and regional agencies to work through industry challenges and focus support in areas needed to keep the food supply flowing. This Working Group provided NJFC access, input on executive orders, and represented an essential seat at the table. This level of critical support was a game-changer. The virtual meetings continue today.
As one of the state’s largest industries, it is apparent how nimble the business reacted and confronted the challenges. It is extraordinary how quickly food retailers shifted and embraced the new social distancing mandates, store capacity requirements, high-risk hours and the facial covering mandate, the first of its kind in the country. In a matter of two days, the Food Council created a public education campaign of Top Ten Shopping Tips for consumers and took to the airwaves with a public service announcement. We also effectively used social media and other resources so New Jerseyans were aware of the new protocols and could shop for groceries with confidence. While unprecedented, these high-level restrictions created a more stable shopping experience and allowed the supply chain to catch up.
As customers needed a contactless shopping experience, NJFC pushed successfully for approval of online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program sales that weren’t expected anytime in the near future. We also received approval for WIC substitutions for out-of-stock items.
Our members went beyond keeping the doors open; they provided essential donations, contributions and community support. NJFC created a new online series of Inspiring Stories highlighting the efforts of our members and their true grit to uplift our communities in crisis.
As the time to reopen New Jersey approached, I was pleased to serve with executives from Wakefern and the Campbell Soup Co. who were appointed by Murphy to serve on his Restart Advisory Council as part of the Manufacturing and Supply Chain Working Group. As an essential business that remained open during the crisis, NJFC created our own member Road to Resiliency Working Group comprised of leaders from our various committees that developed an industry plan that would complement the governor’s Restart Plan. It was presented to the governor’s team recently.
As we phase out of the COVID restrictions, we have work to do in the state Legislature. Our focus will include a Workers’ Compensation Presumption, a bill that creates an unscientific presumption that essential employees who contract COVID-19 were infected on the job and shifts the costs of medical care to the workers’ compensation system.
Additionally, we seek liability protections for essential workers similar to health care workers. NJFC members were called to stand up during this crisis and vigorously followed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Liability protection is not blanket immunity. Reasonable reforms will give businesses a liability safe harbor when following an appropriate standard of care to protect its employees and customers from exposure.
As we move past this wave of COVID, there are several things I know for sure. In a matter of weeks, we became a smarter, more efficient and savvier industry. Technology will blossom to strengthen the customer shopping experience in-store and online. And the supply chain will become more resilient. If and when there is a second wave, we are equipped and ready with a toolkit of resources, waivers, partnerships and experience.
I have great hope for our future and gratitude for an industry that nourished New Jersey in a time of need, crisis and uncertainty. When we evaluate the value proposition of NJFC, it is our relationships, resources, and representation that allowed us to navigate the way for our members during this crisis. That value proposition helped us build the plane while flying it.
Linda Doherty is president of the NJ Food Council.