COVID-19 Threatens Food Supply Chain As Farms Worry About Workers Falling Ill COVID-19 has turned one end of the food industry — stores and restaurants — on its head. At the other end, food production hums along as usual, but that could change if workers catch the virus.
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COVID-19 Threatens Food Supply Chain As Farms Worry About Workers Falling Ill

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COVID-19 Threatens Food Supply Chain As Farms Worry About Workers Falling Ill

COVID-19 Threatens Food Supply Chain As Farms Worry About Workers Falling Ill

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The coronavirus has created a paradox in America's food supply chain. Grocery stores struggle to keep shelves stocked as Americans rush to pack freezers and pantries in anticipation of having to stay home for weeks while restaurants and cafes shut down. However, farms are humming, but there's a dose of denial about what will happen when their workers fall ill. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: As millions of Americans scatter to the privacy of their homes this week, the opposite scene is playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey. Justin Flores was there. He's vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, part of the AFL-CIO.

JUSTIN FLORES: It really is an interesting place, you know?

CHARLES: A thousand or more young men arrive in Monterrey every week. They stand in line at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special visas for temporary agricultural workers. Then they get on buses bound for farms in the United States.

FLORES: I think I spoke with people going to North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi.

CHARLES: A quarter-million people used these so-called guest worker visas to work on U.S. farms last year. On Wednesday, though, this consulate stopped normal operations because of worries about the spreading coronavirus. But most of these farmworkers are still getting visas, the ones who were in the program last year who don't need an in-person interview. And their life does not provide for a lot of social distance.

FLORES: Getting on buses and going to housing units that are often crowded.

CHARLES: This is the paradox of America's food in the age of COVID-19 - chaos at the consumer end of the supply chain, production is going ahead pretty much as usual. And in the middle, trying to redirect food toward the places where Americans now want it, you have people like Mark Levin, the CEO of M. Levin & Company, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Philadelphia.

MARK LEVIN: Bananas were one of our biggest items. We sell 20 to 30 trailers of bananas a week.

CHARLES: And a lot of these bananas usually go to schools and restaurants and company cafeterias.

LEVIN: And unfortunately, all those people last-minute say, I'm sorry, I can't use this fruit. You must take it back, or don't deliver it. And that's tough because we've already got it in the system, ripening and ready to sell.

CHARLES: A lot of grocery stores have empty shelves, though. Could he send the bananas there?

LEVIN: You can at a reduced price.

CHARLES: The problem is institutions buy boxes of loose bananas, 150 bananas to the box - not the bunches you see in grocery stores. The same goes for lots of foods. Different customers want slightly different things. That's all manageable, though.

The bigger worry for the whole food supply chain is the prospect of workers getting sick with the virus. For instance, those farmworkers riding buses together to the field, sometimes living in shared housing. Several people in the fresh produce industry tell NPR they know if one of those workers get sick with a virus, they probably ought to tell everybody in an entire work crew - maybe 30 people - to stay home. But Justin Flores from the farmworker organizing committee says everybody involved may also feel that's impossible.

FLORES: You know, workers trying to support their families and work and agricultural employers who have a short window to plant various crops - just shutting down really isn't an option.

CHARLES: So for now, a lot of farm operations just aren't saying what they'll do.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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