Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: How has the exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic impacted food & beverage?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ dragana991
Source: Getty/ dragana991

Related tags Women Employment pandemic

While the pandemic has helped fuel a business boom for much of packaged food and beverage industry, not everyone in the sector has benefited – with women and female-run small businesses in particular taking a hard hit that could have devastating long-term consequences for the industry unless stakeholders act now to recruit, maintain and support a diverse workplace and category.

According to Pew Research​, US employment during the first three months of the pandemic fell a staggering 13% -- costing 20.5 million Americans their jobs, which is more than double the toll taken by the Great Recession between 2007 and the end of 2009. The vast majority of these losses have fallen on women, 11.5 million of whom lost their jobs in the first three months of the pandemic compared to 9 million men.

Since the initial surge of layoffs, furloughs and voluntary departures from the workforce during the first months of the pandemic, some women have returned – but not at the same rate as before the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis​, which reports as of last month 56.1% of women participated in the workforce – up from a low of 54.1% last April, but a stubborn 1.7 percentage points lower than the 57.8% participation in January 2020 before the pandemic.

Research ​from PriceWaterhouseCoopers attributes the pandemic’s heavy impact on women in part to pre-existing gender inequalities in society that place a heavier burden of domestic work and unpaid care on women, and because women were more highly concentrated in industries hardest hit by social distancing measures.

If left unchecked, PWC warns countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes the US, could leave trillions in gross domestic product gains on the table, including potentially $6 trillion from boosting female employment rates and $2 trillion by closing the gender pay gap.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, we explore the impact of the pandemic on women and what it means for the food and beverage industry. Leadership from the brewery Sam Adams, meat snack company Lorissa’s Kitchen, moringa-based food and beverage company Kuli Kuli Foods and nice cream startup kubé also share strategies for recruiting, maintaining and better supporting women in the food and beverage industry.

In an effort to offset the disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on women in the food and beverage space, the philanthropic arm of Samuel Adams and The Boston Beer Company last week launched an initiative to help 50 moms pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship in the food and beverage industry.

Jennifer Glanville, the director of partnerships & collaborations at Samuel Adams, explains as part of the initiative, the long-running Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream ​program will offer moms a suite of services and perks that will help them professionally while simultaneously recognizing and easing some of the personal obligations that women raising families also must balance.   

“We want to support these amazing entrepreneurs, and so as part of our Mother’s Day package, we are going to be awarding 50 women this incredible package of a year’s worth of coaching and mentoring and training sessions,” ​a $500 check to contribute to childcare or groceries; a voucher to mDesign for home storage and organization needs; a 3-month subscription to City Girl Coffee that sources coffee from women-owned or -managed farms and co-operatives; a Kami Mini camera; and a gift card to, Glanville said.

Applicants have through May 23 to apply and the program is open to any women who are or want to be entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry.

One of the unique aspects of this program is it addresses the whole woman without separating the entrepreneur from the parent – a division that for decades has fostered an uneven domestic divide by effectively turning a blind eye to the “double shift” that many working women take on when they return home from their jobs.

Glanville acknowledges this was a deliberate decision made by the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program.

“Women were for many decades told to leave home and home, and that’s not possible. It isn’t possible fore anyone to do,”​ and so the program acknowledges the many obligations women face at work and at home because they often are  intertwined and make demands on the same limited resources women have, she explained.

Lorissa’s Kitchen celebrates ‘mompreneurs’

Another initiative launched this month to support entrepreneurs who are also moms is Lorissa’s List – a digital platform and integrated marketing campaign featuring 40 mom-owned businesses across categories that is being spearheaded by the mom-founded and run snack brand Lorissa’s Kitchen​.

While Lorissa’s List ​was launched as a digital destination for Mother’s Day gift options, made by moms, Libby Mura, senior vice president of marketing at Lorissa’s Kitchen explains it will be available all year and was created to foster a community of mompreneurs who can support each other as they face the unique challenges of growing a business and family simultaneously.

Lorissa’s Kitchen will host and promote the brands on the list for the rest of the year through social media posts and shoppable links, and will support the entrepreneurs with a membership to Hey Mama​, which is a community for women who are balancing families and careers.

Policy changes and new business practices welcome back, support women

To help rebuild the female workforce after the pandemic, food and beverage businesses need to support women at all levels and across intersections, which may mean taking a hard look at and potentially adjusting policies, hiring practices, and business priorities to encourage inclusion and diversity.

For example, when Lisa Curtis, the CEO of the moringa-based superfood company Kuli Kuli Foods​ became a parent during the pandemic she realized the importance of creating flexible work environments that are family friendly in order to recruit and maintain top talent.

She explains that while she always though that Kuli Kuli had a flexible, family-friendly policy that allowed employees to work from home when they needed to – about one day a week before the pandemic. But, she recalls, because she favored a culture where people most worked in the office she opted not to hire a potential candidate who could not commit to coming to the office every day because she had two young children.

It wasn’t until everyone began working from home during the pandemic that she realized it was possible to have staff work remotely – allowing her to hire that same candidate for a different job.

“She’s been totally transformative to our company, and I think it is an interesting lesson as a business owner to really bring home to mee how much missed talent and missed opportunities CEOs are missing when they don’t have truly family-friendly and truly flexible policies,”​ she said.

Curtis explains there are two major hurdles to creating successful flexible and remote work policies: trusting employees to meet their obligations and fostering collaboration.

Since the pandemic began, she has become a firm believer in holding people to their goals, not their desk. But this requires clearly communicating expectations and setting up infrastructure to support follow through and success.

To foster collaboration, she said, she is considering specifying days that most staff should be in the office for meetings, but allowing them to work remotely other days if they finding working at home more efficient and less distracting.

If offering telework or flexible schedules isn’t an option for companies or some positions, Kai Nortey, the CEO and co-founder of the fresh coconut milk and nice cream startup kubé ​says businesses should open a dialogue with employees to identify what they need and ways to provide its. In the case of parents, this might include paid parental leave and financial help with childcare.

“If companies want to do better and they want to increase diversity and inclusion, they really should hire a diversity and inclusion consultant to hold them accountable,”​ and who can interview employees to identify their concerns and desires without staff feeling intimidated, she said.

She also encouraged companies that want to recruit and maintain top talent should offer paid parental leave and subsidize childcare for employees.

“That says that you value life. That’s where employees feel joyful when they come to work, that they are interconnected to the greater society and to the company and that their children are secure and they’re safe,”​ she explained

Nortey adds that supporting women who are parents also means creating work spaces, like nursing rooms, that meet their unique needs.

Reframe hiring practices to recognize skills learned during ‘time off’ for caretaking

Companies can also make their businesses more inviting for women and all employees by reframing traditional hiring practices so that potential employees are not penalized for so-called gaps in their resume when they were out of the workforce.

With this mind, Curtis advocates that companies offer compensation that is appropriate for the job and consider unique skills potential employees may have honed out of the workforce.

“Equal pay is something that everyone is aligned with on principle, but in execution it can get trickier and I think often for women who have left the workforce, there is this kind of downward trend in their salary and what they can make”​ if they leave the workforce temporarily to care for family or another reason, she said.

However, she explains, caring for family teaches people to be extremely efficient, hones their conflict resolution and management skills and offers other lessons that can be applied to the workforce. Therefore, she argues, employees should be compensated for those skills by companies that pay the full value for what they think a job is worth.

Nortey echoes this and companies to apply this approach not just to parents but all potential employees.

“It’s about recognizing that there is value in everyone and then realizing, okay, what are their skillsets? What do they really want to do?”​ and then weighing those skills and values against those of the company, she said.

A triple bottom line approach to business creates space for employee needs

While many of these shifts come with financial obligations, Nortey says they not only are worth it from the perspective of recruiting and retaining top talent, but investors also increasingly are looking for companies that are doing the right thing by taking a triple bottom line approach, like kubé.

“Yes, we can make a profit, but we need to have a triple bottom line. For us at kube, our triple bottom line is restorative economics, racial and gender equity and ecology,”​ she said, explaining her business meets this is by hiring women who are reentering society, upcycling byproducts and creating a decadent but clean non-dairy frozen dessert.

Currently in the process of raising funds and connecting with investors through her website ​where she has her terms sheet, Nortey adds investors are interest in companies that can do well by doing good.

“There are a lot of investors and everyday people who are now investors and who feel very empowered and very inspired to invest in the companies doing the right thing, developing a triple bottom line, looking at how are they creating diversity inclusion, looking at how are they creating retention programs, employee retention programs,”​ she explained.

Ultimately, when it comes to recruiting back to the workforce women who have left during the pandemic and creating a more broadly inclusive and diverse workplace, these are only a few strategies, but for many companies they are starting points for laying a stronger foundation.

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