Shoppers frightened by COVID-19 who are preparing for long stints at home have overwhelmed many retailers in recent weeks as they seek to stock their pantries and refrigerators, making it difficult for stores to replenish supplies, which FMI emphasizes are available but take time to restock.
At the same time, many local governments have shuttered restaurants, schools and other businesses with very little notice – cutting off foodservice distributors’ traditional paths for dispensing food and maintain a steady income.
To help ease pressures for all sides, FMI and IFDA agreed to work as matchmakers for its members and connect those with extra products and resources to those in need. The partnership was quickly expanded to include the United Produce Association and the National Fisheries Institute.
“What we initially came up with was a fillable form that we sent out to our board that gives members the opportunity, in a very broad way, to say, ‘Here is where our needs are,’ and then that is forwarded to IFDA, which looks at the geographic locations and the needs and they try to match it with their members that are willing to help,” Rick Stein, VP of Fresh Foods at FMI, told FoodNavigator-USA.
The result is FMI’s retail partners receive a list of distributors who they can then contact for help and with whom they can negotiate a contract or arrangement directly, he said.
While the initial inspiration was to find a way to get more food to Americans, Stein said that FMI and IFDA quickly realized they could help each other address more than just consumers’ demand for food.
“We realized IFDA’s members have more than product. Food service distributors have trucks, they have drivers, they have warehouses, they have warehouse selectors, they have industrial cleaning supplies, sanitation supplies that aren’t for retail but for use at the store itself,” all of which grocery retailers need now, Stein said.
“So, we decided what we really need to do is think broader than just, do you need sandwiches or salad kits and things like that. So, we made it even broader and asked members to tell us what all of their needs are and perhaps there will be a food distributor who can help,” he said.
It was at this point that Stein realized that the United Produce Association and the National Fisheries Institute also might be able to address the pain points of its members by also joining the partnership.
The unique partnership not only is helping grocery stores meet consumer demands and distributors move perishable products, it is helping players in each industry continue to employ as many people as possible by redirecting their collective power to address the collective need of the nation.
Thinking outside the box to meet unexpected needs
According to Stein, the biggest needs of FMI members beyond food is providing personal protection equipment for food retail staff.
“Imagine you are a checker at a store and you have kids and you are thinking to yourself, ‘Do I want to be in a checkout all day handling cash, touching customers and potentially bringing this disease home when I come home at night?” Stein said.
“We need workers because people need to eat, so we are trying to make the point to the government that we need to think of our grocery store workers the same way we think of our health care providers. The more we can provide them with personal protection equipment, the better off that they are,” he explained, adding, “So, we are starting to think about how do we open this process up with companies that may be able to help on that front. Are there non-traditional partners out there that can further meet the needs of our members? Maybe a uniform company that works with waste management can provide retailers with uniforms or protective gear? That is what we are thinking about now.”
Similarly, Stein said, FMI is “noodling” how to potentially work with distilleries to make more sanitizer for stores and retail.
Reflecting on this potential and the creativity of the partnerships so far, Stein added, outside of the box thinking for these unprecedented challenges could be the key to finding solutions.