Food for Thought: What happens to our surplus food during COVID-19

by Jared

* This article first appeared here on EAT OUT

While the food chain has remained unquestionably an essential service, there have been some unavoidable and disastrous disruptions. With the unprecedented move to close all restaurants, the inevitable question has been asked: ‘what about the excess or surplus food?’

Several conversations with suppliers around the country gave some fascinating insight, reminding me that South Africa’s well-endowed agricultural industry appears ready to meet the challenge; this with the staple resourcefulness, creativity and resilience that are the hallmark of the South African DNA.

In the urban context we’ve seen an exponential growth of variations of the vegebox (the term ‘vegetable box’ has never been searched for as often). These valuable home-delivery services have been able to help meet some of the needs of both supplier and consumer. Creative collaborations have been birthed, chefs have taken to online audiences and others have shifted their efforts to more philanthropic endeavours.

I had an informative conversation with florist Marcel Augustyn who, after realising that he’d have surplus flowers, decided to design custom flat-lay creations of numbers or names. These are now being sold as virtual cards to clients still wanting to celebrate significant milestones, without forsaking floral accompaniment.

Then there is Lusapho Blondi Nokobana, a rural farmer from the Eastern Cape, who had a surplus of 800 cabbages. Stating his plight on Facebook, it wasn’t long before the post had been shared 6.9k times. He reassured me on the phone: his cabbages have now found a home.

Intrigued about the precious avocados that previously adorned the breakfast plates street-side faces, I spoke with Lindie Stroebel of Mission South Africa, the largest avocado supplier in the world. She assured me that we’re not yet at surplus stage; in fact rather catch-up after the initial panic retail patterns we all saw strewn across social media. Lindie noted that while there has been disruption, buying patterns have been maintained. Rather than surplus, there has been a shift. A higher demand from retailers have meant that some producers have been able to shift their distribution to meet retailer’s needs.

In the unfortunate circumstances where there is food surplus, a glimmer of hope is to be found in organisations – like Foodforward – who are well-poised to bridge the gap between suppliers and organisations needing to feed hungry dependants. Deidre Adams, the company’s Fund Development Manager, highlighted the dramatic increase in donations – both from surplus food and goodwill gifts. “COVID-19 has served as an interface to say we all have a social responsibility.”

Gregg Cheetham, Procurement Executive at National Brands, sources raw materials needed for some of South Africa’s most loved food brands. “I think we’re going to feel the impact much longer than lockdown. People talk about when things return to ‘normal’…I don’t think we even know what normal is anymore?” He also adds rather soberly, that no one in the industry expected having to add ‘Managed a supply chain during lockdown’ as a skill to their CV.

On the wine front, the commencement of lockdown came with a severe blow to the industry: exports would have to pause immediately. Thankfully (due to extensive lobbying) the decision was repealed on the 8th April, allowing wine exports to resume. Despite this challenge, many producers such as Distell, SAB, DGB and many more, were quick to heed the call for sanitizers and related hygiene products, by repurposing some of their alcohol.

The national unity that has arisen during the pandemic has been a reminder that we have been through much as a country. As the situation continues to change, we hope that the food industry continues to respond with the same sense of proactivity and pride.

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