Farm Food Facts

Grocery Chain Publix Discusses Leading the Way in Supporting Farmers and Feeding America During the Pandemic

May 18, 2020 USFRA Episode 77
Farm Food Facts
Grocery Chain Publix Discusses Leading the Way in Supporting Farmers and Feeding America During the Pandemic
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Grocery Chain Publix Discusses Leading the Way in Supporting Farmers and Feeding America During the Pandemic
May 18, 2020 Episode 77
USFRA

Curt Epperson, Business Development Director: Produce and Floral for Publix, and Thomas Torbert, Senior Sales Associate at Five Brothers Produce, discuss the impact of Publix’s program to purchase surplus produce and dairy direct from Florida farmers and donate it to Feeding America food banks during this pandemic.

Show Notes Transcript

Curt Epperson, Business Development Director: Produce and Floral for Publix, and Thomas Torbert, Senior Sales Associate at Five Brothers Produce, discuss the impact of Publix’s program to purchase surplus produce and dairy direct from Florida farmers and donate it to Feeding America food banks during this pandemic.

Phil:

Farm Food Facts. Where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Welcome to Farm Food Facts for Wednesday, May 20th, 2020 I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Many of our farmers are in the fields preparing their crops and let me assure you that they're committed to ensuring that this year's harvest will produce affordable, sustainable, and accessible foods, which is the backbone of our economy. But the reality is that Covid 19 has created much disruption. Today we're going to talk about a true partnership between a retailer, a farmer and a food bank. Publix supermarket has donated over 1.8 million pounds of fruits and vegetables and more than 156,000 gallons of milk to Feeding America. And they did it by reaching out to farmers. Curt Epperson, a 35 year veteran at Publix is the business development Director of Produce for the chain and he'll join us. Thomas Torbert works alongside his brother, father, mom, and sister at Five Brothers Produced and believes there's only one way of growing farm produce and that's the natural way straight from the seed in their beautifully farm fields. Every crop is nurtured to provide families and customers only the best in whole foods. And he will join us as well. So Curt, Publix has a reputation for many decades of really working with a lot of farmers being local, specializing in local. Why, why was it an important move to not only help farmers with those farmers that you've got a relationship, but to actively seek out farmers that are most impacted during Covid-19?

Curt:

Well, Phil as a food retailer, feeding people is, is what we do best. And when Publix realized that there was a need, we wanted to reach out and lend a helping hand, not just to the farmers that we do business with day in and day out. But we are really wanting to lend a hand to all the farmers across all the state and, uh, provide some kind of help and guidance where we could, you know, I'll tell you the, uh, our farmers, you know, they're there for us every day, uh, at a drop of a hat, uh, helping us out to get out of any pinch we're in. And we just felt like it was a great opportunity to get that.

Phil:

So when I look across the industry, I don't think any retailer, any grocery retailer in the U S moved as quickly as you did on this. How were you able to do it?

Curt:

Yeah, good question. Good question. And uh, I would tell you that at Publix we have a very close connection with our suppliers, uh, suppliers like Thomas, at Five Brothers. And we're constantly speaking with our suppliers every day to really find out about the supply and the demand, the quality and the availability of the product. And, uh, we always have our finger on the pulse, uh, to understand what's going on in the industry and in the world of produce. And so in talking with our suppliers, we knew that timing was critical and we knew that we had to react quickly, but it all really started with the support at the top from our CEO, Todd Jones. And once Todd gave us the nod, I can, I can tell you our teams went to work on just find them ways that we could provide some relief to the farmers. And everyone that was in need.

Phil:

So, Thomas, I'm going to ask you a tough question. Okay. How many pounds of produce were you losing every week before, you know, before Kurt came to you and said, 'Hey, let's make a deal here'.

Thomas:

We were, we were losing roughly 30 to 40,000 pounds of combined produce a week.

Phil:

Oh my. Yeah. And that had to hurt.

Thomas:

Oh yeah. Well, I mean, obviously the financial side of it, I mean, you're, you're looking at how you're going to make it work basically. I mean, you, you've lost so much business through the, the Covid, uh, pandemic and um, you know, everything's shut down. This also, this happened right before the Easter, you know, Easter, Passover business started to come. Um, so we had a lot of stuff in the ground, a lot of, um, we were, we had a lot of acreage planets for that time period. So as this, you know, happened and everything was shutting down. It was horrendous timing basically. So for Publix to come in, when they did, it was huge. I mean without Publix, they're on the retail side and with this initiative that they put together with fresh point, honestly we wouldn't be able to even plan next year.

Phil:

Um, I'm assuming that Publix, you know, came to the rescue in time so you didn't have to lay off any workers, you know, you didn't have to downsize at all. Had Publix not done that, what, what would have been the result?

Thomas:

Uh, I mean we honestly, we, we wouldn't even be here. Um, we would have had to lay everybody off. We wouldn't have the funds to even plan for our next crop basically. I mean, you have so much money in the ground at one time. Um, if something like this had happened and no one really came to the rescue like Publix did, you would have lost all that. You would have lost employees, um, and any ability to farm in the future pretty much for us.

Phil:

So Kurt, I think you have a new best friend in Thomas. Uh, but how long?

Thomas:

Yes. Yes he does. Yes, he does.

Phil:

How, how long is Publix going to keep this program going?

Curt:

Yeah,. Phil, there's really no end date in mind right now. As long as there's a need and mother nature is kind to us, we're going to stay laser focused on doing the most good we can.

Phil:

It's well that's what Publix has always stood for. Yeah. Matter of fact, not only in stores but in, in the communities that you serve as well. Thomas, you know, I forgot to ask you, has any other retailer come to you like Publix that wanted to do something similar?

Thomas:

No, they have not. No. There's been some, um, some government aid, um, you know, with nonprofits like farm share feeding South Florida, but as a retailer, a private business, no, nobody has come to us with any initiative like this.

Phil:

And Kurt, do you think it's going to change the way you know, you're buying produce in the future after the pandemic is over or are you going to be working more directly with people like, like Thomas,

Curt:

Phil, I don't think there'll be any change at all. We take a lot of pride in supporting and buying local products today. We're a Florida based company and we've always believed in buying local and supporting growers and all of the States that we operate on. So quite frankly, I don't see any change in what we're doing because we have a strong program today and supporting a local and supporting local farmers and am may I add the communities that we both serve.

Phil:

Right. And, and Thomas, you know, obviously this is helping you now. Um, what are you learning from this relationship with Publix that might change how you sell produce in the future?

Thomas:

Um, I mean, I don't know if it'll change much on how we sell produce in the future, but I mean, this, this is Publix in a nutshell. I mean, they've always taken care of their employees, their vendors, you know, which is, you know, one of us, their farms. Um, this is, uh, you almost expect this from public. I mean, we're going to continue to, to, to grow, continue to, uh, try to put, you know, the best product we possibly can into Publix and continues on from there.

Phil:

And Thomas, what would you like consumers to know that are, you know, hearing all the news headlines, they're worried about our food supply, a broken supply chain, all of that. What should, what should consumers know?

Thomas:

I mean, if, if you have people like Publix who who supports their vendors during tough times like this, you're going to have a, a nonstop supply chain. Basically they support us, you know, obviously on the financial side, I'm taking a lot of this product on the retail side. They kept us on ag, kept the movement going, which was massive for us especially, you know, as we were approaching, um, heavy volume duty, Easter, you know, it's basically there's not going to be a change in the supply chain. I mean, we're going to keep growing and we're going to keep providing food as long as Publix is there and as long as, as they do the same, which I know they will.

Phil:

Kurt, let's talk a little bit about Feeding America. You know, we, we talk often to the people who had feeding America. We know that by the news reports that there are a lot of people out there that are hungry, that are depending on Feeding America, that Feeding America is looking for more, more, more food, uh, to be able to do it. And if we hit a recession, uh, this fall, um, it'll be even a greater need. Uh, talk about your relationship with Feeding America and, and how they're playing into this program.

Curt:

Well, certainly, uh, they've been very supportive. Uh, we've worked with several different feeding America food banks, so across the Southeast and uh, that's been very rewarding because they have helped us take this product that we have sourced from all the Florida farmers and, uh, has been a source for us to provide to those that are in need. So they've been very beneficial and very impactful in this role. I would tell you that, you know, if there's other ways to help, you know, as I mentioned earlier, our strategy is always to buy local and support domestic growers so customers can find these local products at our stores. We identify them with the state signs from all the marketing areas that our marketing areas that we operate in. And then I would also tell you, consumers can help by supporting their local food banks with financial assistance. They can do food drives or they can even a volunteer if they desire.

Phil:

And Kurt, last question. What advice would you give to other grocery retailers around the country on, on what you've learned from this experience?

Curt:

You know, the advice I would give as to, um, stay connected to your grower and to work closely with them to, uh, source a, a wholesome, fresh quality product, um, that would support the needs of the communities that they serve and meet the needs, uh, serve the needs of the growers that are serving those communities. I think that's been most impactful for us is just really, you know, at the end of the day you're sitting here and you're developing this program and this program wasn't, you know, it wasn't built in weeks and months. It was built in days. And, uh, there was a lot of work that went into it with a team that was driven and highly motivated to make a difference. And so as you're doing that work, you view it as work. But you know when there's, there's times when you're and growers and you're talking to them and they're on the phone drive and then they pull over and you tell them, Hey listen, you know, we're working on this program and not only are we gonna continue to do the business we have been doing, but the business that you're growing for food service, I want to help you sell all of that product that you are no longer selling.

Curt:

And when somebody gets choked up because they can't even take the time or compose themselves to give pass along the gratification for what you're doing to them, it's pretty rewarding. It's very rewarding when you, when you hit somebody like that and you just realize the impact of them and their family. The other side of that is when you slow down long enough and you see the news briefs and you see the lines of cars that are lined up at these feeding America food banks and you hear the interviews, these from these young families that have to have food for their children and for their families, they pulls your heart strings and uh, pretty awesome. So my advice is to other retailers is do the right thing and, and do your best to support these growers in a way that can provide a win win for everybody.

Speaker 1:

Well I want to thank you both so much for joining us today on farm food facts and Thomas to you. Everybody had five brothers and your family. Thank you. And Kurt, a gigantic hug and thank you to you and everybody at Publix.

Curt:

Awesome. Well we appreciate it. Thank you guys for taking the time. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to today's podcast episode. For more information on all things food and agriculture, please visit us@usfarmersandranchers.org. Also be sure to look for us on Facebook @usfarmersandranchers or on Twitter at USFRA. Until next time.