Yoder on State Food Supply Chain Group

Flag, man at podium and 4-H banner

An NC State Extension leader is among two NC State staffers who’ve joined North Carolina’s frontline effort to address food production and distribution issues across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mike Yoder, Extension’s associate director and emergency programs coordinator, was recently named to the state’s Food Supply Chain Working Group. Brigadier General Allen Boyette of the North Carolina Army National Guard chairs the group. Boyette is senior director of energy systems in NC State University’s facilities division.

The team also includes members from private industry, the agricultural community, the state departments of Public Instruction, Public Safety, Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Health and Human Services.

North Carolina Emergency Management and its State Emergency Response Team partners issued a news release last week about the group’s formation.

Yoder said that the group’s goal is to ensure all North Carolinians are fed and that all the links in the state’s food supply chain, from farm to fork, remain strong.

Social distancing meant that we couldn’t sit down with Yoder to get his perspective on the workgroup’s efforts, so we called instead. Here’s what he said about the importance of its work in responding to the pandemic.

Why is this group’s work important to North Carolina?

The agriculture and agribusiness industry is worth more than $90 billion annually in North Carolina, and two-thirds of that stems directly from animal agriculture. We want to do everything we can to protect the industry for all those who depend on it for their income and for all of us because we all need the food, fiber and fuel that the industry makes and delivers.

The group identified places in the food supply chain where the pandemic could cause problems. Can you tell us more?

In the food supply chain, we see some pinch points that, if affected, could have implications from the farm level to the consumer. 

You may have seen some recent news reports showing that a number of large processing plants around the country have closed because workers have been affected. We don’t want that to happen in North Carolina. Our state has animal processors with operations that range from small ones that operate on single farms to one that’s the biggest pork processing facility in the world. 

If processing plants have to close down because of COVID-19 and can’t take animals when they reach market weight, then farmers stand to lose the substantial investments of time and money they’ve put into raising those animals.

So it’s important to everyone involved in the food supply chain that we protect the health and safety of workers in the major food processing plants. 

To help with that, the state’s departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture and Consumer Services are providing guidance, and testing is taking place.

The group is also addressing other issues related to food processors. Please describe that.

Before COVID-19, American households were consuming most of their meals away from home, with restaurants, cafeterias, schools, universities and similar places accounting for more than half of all food consumption. That changed with social distancing guidelines. Now households are preparing and eating most of their meals at home, and the restaurant industry is operating at about 20% of capacity, relying on their takeout services.

This change happened suddenly, and it’s requiring major shifts. The industry has been built around supplying bulk items that typically go to these institutions, and distribution systems are finding it difficult to adapt to packaging for households — plant modifications would be costly and take time.

And finally, will this workgroup have an influence on consumers – especially consumers who didn’t have enough food as it was and for those who have suddenly found themselves unemployed?

With the unemployment rate rising rapidly, many people are struggling to meet their families’ food needs. That creates a need to get food quickly from warehouses to our state’s food banks and pantries. 

Last week, at the recommendation of the workgroup, the N.C. National Guard mobilized troops and vehicles for each of the state’s seven food banks. They and other partners are also working to increase food deliveries to senior centers, as well as to school and nutrition programs.

Any closing thoughts? 

In the end, I think we are going to learn a lot from this. This virus has affected millions of people around the world and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. It’s been devastating, and recovery could take a long time. Still, we are learning from it and seeing opportunities for the supply chain to become more resilient. 

About Mike Yoder

Mike Yoder serves as associate director of NC State Extension, the university’s largest outreach program, with centers serving all 100 counties in North Carolina as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Yoder also serves as Extension’s state 4-H program leader and its emergency programs coordinator. 

Yoder’s experience with 4-H stretches back to childhood, when he was involved in youth livestock programs. He has been with NC State since 1996, when he joined the Department of Animal Science faculty. 

In times of disaster – hurricanes, floods and winter storms, especially – Yoder has worked with Extension educators at the university and across the state to ensure that people have access to NC State’s research-based programs and expertise so that they can prepare and recover.

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This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.