Workers in food retail, donation, or meal delivery are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Until now, food retailers, food banks, and school food services operated under food safety regulations to prevent food-borne disease. But with the deadly outbreak of COVID-19, they are developing new standards and guidance on the fly to try and protect their employees, volunteers, and the public from the virus while facing an ever-growing demand for food.
In the coming weeks, food organizations will likely need more resources and stronger safety measures to limit transmission.
Long lines of cars waiting to receive food from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which has seen a 543 percent increase in the number of people seeking food, demonstrate the continuing surge in local need. The Pittsburgh food bank canceled services that could not be carried out while maintaining social distancing standards, like its Produce to People distributions. At the same time, it implemented a no-contact protocol and a drive-up emergency food distribution model.
Pittsburgh Public Schools mobilized meal distribution at school “grab and go” sites following the closure of schools. These meals are now available three times a week for pickup at school locations and other community locations.
Grocery stores are also busy. Despite voluntary protective measures, Giant Eagle employees have continued to test positive for COVID-19—which demonstrates that even these measures aren't necessarily foolproof.
With the first reports of Walmart, Trader Joe's, and Giant employee COVID-19 deaths, employees began calling for better protection. Giant Eagle announced that it would limit the number of customers to 50 percent of store capacity. Some retailers have offered bonus pay and promised to supply their workers masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
What More Could Be Done?
To protect people working with food and the public, all staff and volunteers could be furnished with masks and gloves and be required to wear them.Share on Twitter
To protect people working with food and the public, all staff and volunteers could be furnished with masks and gloves and be required to wear them. Employees could be screened regularly for fevers and tested for the virus to help identify those who should be self-isolating. These workers also could be provided with first responder status so they can get access to priority testing and personal protective equipment.
At the same time, enhanced pay and benefits, including sick leave, insurance coverage, and access to child care, could help attract and retain workers as needs continue to spike. On average, cashiers and checkers earn about $15 per hour.
Additional resources also could be needed to pay for the implementation of creative solutions to ensure students who rely on schools for meals do not go hungry. One idea that has worked in other districts is using school buses and their drivers to deliver meals to students' bus stops. In Pennsylvania, more than 168 million meals were provided for students last year, according to the state Department of Education. The success of such programs could also hinge on continued access to protective gear for school personnel.
The public also can play a huge role. In addition to social distancing and safety behaviors like wearing masks and gloves, it's the practicing of patience when waiting in lines, whether at the store or at a food bank, that could help everyone to better endure a stressful situation. No matter how long the line, remember that employees, staff, and volunteers are doing their best under very taxing conditions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, and access to food could be critical to getting through it. People will continue to need food, and demands for protective gear are only expected to grow. Local leaders and policymakers could find themselves being forced to devote new resources to make sure all citizens have access to food and that those on the front lines are protected.
Andrea Richardson is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Tamara Dubowitz is a senior policy researcher at RAND and a professor the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared on Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on April 29, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.