B.C. 2.0.: Food production’s problems just got worse with the pandemic

Can the industry beat its struggles and become the cream of the crop?

Credit: Nature’s Path

Nature’s Path Foods has kept product flowing

Can the industry beat its struggles and become the cream of the crop?

In B.C., food production will probably be linked with the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. That’s troubling for an industry that was already dealing with some negative public perception. But it’s also not the full story.

Though the provincial government deemed harvesting and producing food an essential service during the crisis, some smaller facilities had to reduce operations or staff or both. Meanwhile, large organizations, like the four Lower Mainland poultry plants that saw COVID breakouts, have learned some hard lessons.

So while increased health and safety protocols instituted throughout the province will allow companies to return to more regular production, the industry may need a rebranding of sorts.

“Sixty years ago, being involved in the food industry was a very noble enterprise; it was a good thing,” says Victoria-based food systems researcher Debra Hellbach. “Now a lot of jobs in the sector are relegated to foreign workers because nobody wants to work there anymore.”

Hellbach’s point is tough to dispute. In late May, in an effort to fast-track hiring, B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham introduced an online government job portal designed to match farmers with workers. It’s estimated that the pandemic will result in a shortfall of some 7,000 seasonal agriculture jobs.

Add it all up, and it makes sense why Nature’s Path Foods executive vice-president Arjan Stephens calls his company “very blessed.” One of the bigger names in the provincial industry, the Richmond-headquartered producer of organic cereals and snacks sells to 50 countries worldwide. As people stocked up on dry goods, sales jumped. Nature’s Path kept all three of its facilities–in Delta, Washington state and Wisconsin–humming and even added to its payroll of roughly 700 employees. 

“Leading up to the crisis, our sales were good, and then we had large spikes in pantry loading and panic buying,” Stephens says. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to react and are still playing catch-up and getting items into stock and supplying grocery stores and food retailers.”

Stephens acknowledges that there was a “lot of fear” from team members about coming to work, so Nature’s Path brought in mandatory temperature screenings about six weeks before BC Centre for Disease Control guidelines suggested them for essential food production. Besides hiring more people to sanitize common areas like lunch rooms and locker rooms, the company gave production workers a $2 hourly premium as well as a $300 bonus.

Again, it’s obvious that Stephens knows how fortunate he and Nature’s Path–founded by his parents, Arran and Ratana–are in a fraught business. “I was attending a call by an investment firm, and they were saying there were already some casualties within the consumer packaged goods industry,” he recalls. “Some smaller companies were already in a precarious situation pre-COVID, and then it came and taxed their finances, and they weren’t able to weather that.”

It certainly wasn’t a smooth ride for Cathline James and Wise Bites Collections, the Richmond-based allergen-free baked goods producer she founded and leads. “Pre-COVID, we were excited, we were doing gangbusters–the first two weeks of March especially were fantastic for us,” CEO James says. “And honestly, it was like someone turned off the tap on March 15.”

James kept the company running and producing small batches, but she had to temporarily lay off most of her nine employees. She used much of the downtime to strategize how to best move the business forward. “We don’t want to really think of COVID as opportunity, but we thought, OK, we’re there with this; how can we adapt it to something good?” James remembers. “[We] worked on supporting the community, creating boxes, making donations and really dug into the online business.”

By early June, James had rehired almost all of her staff, and she reckons it won’t be long until the industry gets back on its feet: “It was all off, and it will be all on,” she says, noting that Wise Bites has already seen customers return and a growing interest in healthier options. “I think anyone in food production, if they can last through COVID and this downturn, then absolutely, there is a future. It’s a very important industry for the province of B.C. and for Canada.”