A panel of four experts recently discussed the impacts COVID-19 has had on food and agriculture.

The panelists spoke during 7th District State Sen. Steve Glazer’s virtual April 23 Town Hall meeting, which was also broadcast live on Channel 27 on Comcast.

The panel included Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation; Estella Cisneros, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA); Matt Sutton, senior vice president of the California Restaurant Association; and Ben Palazzolo, market manager for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association.

The food industry has been knocked out of balance, the experts reported. Despite phone orders and customers ordering takeout, 49% of the state’s restaurants are not open.

Added to that is the impact of homeschooling, which has reduced the school lunch market to almost no level at all, except for a relatively small percentage of students whose families pick up free lunches in boxes daily.

Media reports show farmers have dumped milk, because the market has shrunk so much. Johansson said that California produces about 20% of the milk in the U.S., and sells related products such as butter, yogurt and ice cream.

“The biggest buyer of milk is schools,” Johansson said. “When they shut down, it sent the first shock wave.”

Johansson said California has the seventh largest food economy in the world.

“Half of our production goes to restaurants, so we lost half our market overnight,” he said.

Sutton from the restaurant association said that 1 million of the state’s 1.5 million restaurant workers have been laid off.

Health departments regulate restaurants, about such things as six-foot spacing and wearing masks. One questioner in the phone conference asked how diners will eat their food if they must wear masks. Sutton said the masks are required of employees, but as far as diners are concerned, “The caller makes a good point.”

With people losing their jobs during shelter in place, which in the Bay Area is being extended to May 31, food banks want to gear up for more volume, something farmers say will take a year or more, because modifications have to be made to the old system of distribution, said Johansson.

Farm Workers Feel Unsafe

The people who harvest, box and store food in warehouses regard themselves as part of a team of first responders, said Cisneros, the attorney from CRLA. She referred to the death of one worker at a 2.2 million square-foot center in Tracy where Safeway employs 1,700 workers. Some 51 cases of COVID-19 have been found there, she said.

“We were saddened to learn that an associate at our Tracy Distribution Center has passed away due to complications related to COVID-19,” Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said in a statement. “Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts are with that associate’s family. This is difficult for the entire Safeway team.”

The Safeway Foundation will contribute to the victim’s family, said Gutshall.

Food Banks Important Component

Farmers want to do more for food banks, since they realize the need has grown because of mushrooming unemployment, said Johansson.

One thing they hope to develop is refrigeration that can preserve more perishables, but it may be more than a year to achieve the goal.

In the Valley, the food business is picking up at Meadowlark Dairy in Pleasanton. The weather is warming up; people want their soft ice cream cones; and the dairy is now able to get eggs in dozens of cartons, instead of big flats of 30, noted manager Jesse Takens. Meadowlark has a reliable source for its milk products because it signed a contract with Crystal Dairy in the Central Valley a few years ago, said Takens.

There is space for only seven Meadowlark employees, mostly high school students, because of the social distances required of employees, instead of the previous maximum of 15. They have to have their temperatures read electronically and wear face masks.

At Gay 90’s Pizza, on Main Street in Pleasanton, staff member Julie Patterson said that people can pick up orders; it has not been hard for the restaurant to get ingredients. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. In the pre-COVID 19 days, closing time was 10 p.m., except in summer when it closed at 11 p.m.

Open Heart Kitchen Has Reliable Supply

Denise Bridges, development director for Open Heart Kitchen (OHK), the Valley’s food bank, said part of its food supply has been interrupted, because food donated by well-wishers can no longer be accepted, as it could be contaminated.

OHK is relying more on the commercial food supplier that it has regularly used. To help make up the gap left by elimination of home-food donations, OHK is asking its supporters to donate more cash to expand the budget to buy more from its usual supplier.

OHK still is maintaining its lunchtime food pickups at the senior centers in Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin for seniors 60 and older, Mondays through Fridays. People who want to order a meal need to call 925-500-8291 by 1 p.m.

Others can pick up hot meals between 1 and 3 p.m. at the Robert Livermore Senior Center, 4444 East Ave., Livermore.

OHK dinner can be picked up between 4 and 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at the entryway counter of Ridgeview Commons, 5200 Case Ave., Pleasanton.

Tri-Valley Might Get Another Farmers Market

Pleasanton Vice-mayor Kathy Narum said the city staff is looking into the possibility of restarting its farmers market, which has become a year-round community institution.

Safety must come first. Staff is analyzing how to draw the lines for social distancing for customers and the farmers. The market is also a Saturday morning gathering spot, with people encouraging attendees to sign their initiative petitions, so First Amendment rights need to be examined, too, said Narum.

Meanwhile, Dublin is continuing its farmers market from noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays in Emerald Glen Park. There are no tables or chairs, a measure to discourage people from gathering too closely. Farmers prepackage their produce off-site with proper procedures and wear face masks, which is now the order for everyone in Alameda County.