KANSAS CITY, MO. - The coronavirus may have ended the United Fresh Produce Association’s hopes of holding its annual convention this spring.

But the Washington, D.C.-based group didn’t give up on bringing its members together in some way that could provide value and help the industry find a path forward.

The result is United Fresh LIVE!, a virtual platform that will debut the week of June 15, featuring live keynote presentations, roundtable discussion groups, networking interaction among different communities and an expo floor where exhibitors and attendees can share information, view videos and other content, chat live and make the same connections one would at an in-person event.

“It’s an innovative solution to an unprecedented challenge,” said Michael Muzyk, president of New York-based Baldor Specialty Foods and chairman of the United Fresh board of directors. “Businesses across the supply chain are clamoring for information and connections. As we’ve learned to adopt online platforms to conduct our daily business, offering this free virtual event broadens our opportunity to deliver real value to thousands of industry members at a time when they need it most.”

United Fresh LIVE! is free for all participants and is expected to draw thousands from al sectors of the fresh produce industry, said Tom Stenzel, United Fresh’s CEO and president.

 “During these past few weeks, we’ve all learned something about connections,” Stenzel said. “While we can’t wait to join with industry friends again in person, we’ve also realized that we’re connecting today in new ways. We’re all online, with video streaming, face-to-face chats and group interactions that, just a month ago, we didn’t know how to do.”

For more details on United Fresh LIVE! and the coronavirus’s impact on the fresh produce industry, Supermarket Perimeter sat down (virtually, of course) with Mary Coppola, the association’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Supermarket Perimeter: How has the fresh produce industry handled the coronavirus outbreak, and how would you characterize the state of the industry now?

Mary Coppola: In the new reality of a coronavirus impacted business environment, the innovation of the fresh produce industry has amplified. As a perishable industry, we’re familiar with how external factors can impact our business operations, and generally, we’re prepared to handle what Mother Nature throws at us. This global pandemic has tested our resolve.

After four weeks of business as un-usual the industry’s resilience continues to drive new and creative solutions for delivering produce products that were already in the fields and supply chain.

We’re tired and threadbare, especially foodservice distributors who are feeling the burden of the loss of business most. However, we’re resilient and full of pride despite the disruption because we continue, daily, to feed America – a badge of honor that we can stay focused on to weather the storm of this crisis.

SP: What is United Fresh's role during this difficult time, and how will that role evolve in the coming months?

MC: Throughout the crisis, United Fresh has had two focused missions: to do everything we can to keep the supply chain moving, and to do everything we can to secure financial relief for the industry.

We’ve done this through guiding the industry into new distribution channels and developing collaborations with industry partners like the NGA and FMI to deliver through retail channels at a time when they needed more product to meet consumer demand. We built programs thorough the Untied Fresh Start Foundation to supply grants to growers and distributors to support donations of product throughout their communities. We’ve built share groups and other resources to be allow collaboration between those who have resources and those who need resources.

 We’ve helped secure financial relief through legislation, leading collaboration across the industry and on Capitol Hill to gain immediate attention of our losses. Once the CARES Act passed with funds allocated to support losses in agriculture, due to our efforts, we transitioned our work to focus on urging USDA to put programs in place immediately to get aid to our growers and supply chain in an expeditious manner. [reference “What Is United Fresh Doing…” resource page. We also proposed the Produce Market Stabilization Program to USDA as a solution for getting financial aid to our industry.


SP: What was the decision making behind launching United Fresh Live, and what about it most excites you?

MC: Transitioning our annual convention – a tradition held at United Fresh for more than a century – was a natural step in this current pandemic environment. Despite the difficulty of the decision, it’s in the best interest of our industry to continue to offer a platform where new and ongoing business relationships ensure that the supply chain continues to move in innovative and creative ways.

United Fresh LIVE! is exciting for so many reasons. A virtual platform means the hurdles of travel, time and expense are all removed, offering the benefits of networking, learning and discovery from the comfort of an office, home office or mobile device. Offering free registration means companies can allow more staff to benefit from learning and interacting with the broader industry.

Although we’re not together to celebrate the Retail Produce Managers in person, their corporate offices will be able to celebrate with them virtually across the country – their peers and families will be able to see them recognized in real time! Free registration also means United Fresh can continue to deliver value without barriers at a time when the industry needs camaraderie, community, and support through ongoing businesses opportunities now more than ever.

SP: What qualities do United Fresh and its members have that will help you get through this?

MC: If you’ve ever talked to a farmer, you know resilience and persistence are in their blood. That’s true across the supply chain. There are businesses who have lost 90% of their revenue due to this crisis. In the face of despair, this industry continues to first acknowledge the silver linings and that is what will carry us through. Being United Makes All the Difference is not just our motto, it’s our mantra and it’s ringing true more today than ever before.

SP: Will the outbreak permanently change the fresh produce industry and the food industry in general? How?

MC: The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will forever change the world. The fresh produce industry will never be what it was, but we might just be better. The challenges endured have already resulted in new and innovative partnerships, distribution channels and business models. Whether these solutions are sustainable or if they transition into different solutions, only time will tell.

Grants help keep industry afloat

In response to the pandemic, the United Fresh Start Foundation is offering a new grant program — COVID-19 Rapid Response FRESH Grants — to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for children and families in need, while also creating opportunities for foodservice distributors who face the loss of markets due to the restaurant and hospitality industry shutdown.

“These are two pressing needs facing our country today that are interconnected,” said United Fresh Start Foundation Chair Lisa McNeece, vice president, foodservice and industrial sales, for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Grimmway Farms. “Kids are out of school and families are out of work. We need to make sure they have access to fresh produce through remote feeding sites or community programs. And at the same time, our foodservice distributors have been devasted by the immediate shutdown of their markets. This is an attempt to inspire our greater industry to recognize both needs and do what we can to help.”

The United Fresh Start Foundation will fund (25) $1,000 grants to produce companies and foodservice distributors who can provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schools, community groups, and other emergency feeding sites for those in need. If a distributor can donate at least $1,000 worth of produce, or more, the Foundation will reimburse them $1,000. The goal is to break down the barriers that impact access to fresh produce, and bring community members and the supply chain together during this extraordinary time.

The first grant was used to support a donation of 1,000 3-pound bags of apples by Lancaster Foods to the ALIVE community feeding program in Alexandria, Virginia on April 4. Lancaster Foods’ President John Gates joined United Fresh’s president and Stenzel in delivering the fresh produce to ALIVE for distribution to needy residents in the community.

“I thank John and the Lancaster team for going above and beyond to help our community,” Stenzel said. “And, for me personally, this feeds my own neighbors in need.”

The program is funded through the generosity of those individuals who have agreed to donate their prepaid registration fees for the United Fresh 2020 Convention in San Diego to the United Fresh Start Foundation.

“I want to thank each of those individuals for inspiring us with their generosity and making this program possible,” McNeece said. “In addition, we encourage individuals to consider making a tax-deductible donation directly to the United Fresh Start Foundation so we can continue to serve kids everywhere as best we can. And, of course, company contributions are welcome! Make your donation here to ensure kids are growing up fresh!”

Interested produce distributors should complete this simple form to request a grant from the United Fresh Start Foundation. We ask that you immediately implement community feeding programs and we will get back to you on a first-come, first-served basis as long as funds are available. Visit www.unitedfreshstart.org for complete details on the COVID-19 Rapid Response FRESH Grants program. For more information, contact Mollie Van Lieu, Senior Director of Nutrition Policy at 202-303-3403 or mvanlieu@unitedfresh.org. ### About United Fresh Start Foundation The United Fresh Start Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit organization focused

This story was featured in the May 2020 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full magazine here.