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The 100-Year-Old Nogales Produce Sector
Episode 110th October 2020 • What is American Food? • Hannah Semler & Ali Berlow
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Episode 1: The 100-Year-Old Nogales Produce Sector

Hosts: Ali Berlow & Hannah Semler

Guests: James Martin of Wilson Produce LLC and Jamie Chamberlain of Chamberlain Distributing Inc.

Six billion pounds of fresh produce enters into the U.S. through Nogales, Arizona each year destined for the U.S. market; this has been steadily growing over the past 100 years. With some digging, we soon find out that this very efficient food system, able to provide such enormous quantities of nutritious food, essential for human health, representing 84% of fresh produce on our shelves in winter, does not always make it to sale.

To understand the produce rescue effort at Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, that redistributed 100 million pounds the past three years, we first take a look at the businesses in Nogales. This is the second largest trade port between US and MX (second only to Pharr/McAllen, Texas) and its rich history, and the personalities running businesses there, will change your thinking around how this country feeds itself forever.

We speak with Jaime Chamberlain, of Chamberlain Distributing, and James Martin, of Wilson Produce, to understand their role in our food system, as they trade in nutritious fresh produce grown in Mexico to feed people all over the U.S and Canada. Perspectives on the importance of their contribution range from proudly stating that the U.S. has the cheapest fresh produce in the world, therefore making it most accessible to people, all the way to wanting to ensure that the produce being grown is done so with regenerative organic quality standards, and with as little waste as possible.

Season 1: The Nogales Arizona Port of Entry: a food rescue perspective.

Feeding the U.S are farmers, distributors and food banks working across the U.S.-MX border, to provide 84% of our country’s fresh produce in the winter months. Produce rescue efforts in Nogales led by Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona have redistributed 45 million pounds of that (at least) to our food insecure populations in the US every year for the past three years. In Season 1 of What is American Food? we follow from the Farm in Mexico, to the Distributor in Nogales, to the Community Food Bank in Nogales and Tucson, and the people impacted by this food.

How Mexico is inextricably linked to our nation’s food security story, is widely unknown or misunderstood. The amount of produce, but also the number of people touched by the millions of pounds of produce being moved, creates a new narrative about the value of the food we eat (and don’t eat) in the US. The Nogales Port of Entry, and the farms in Mexico feeding this country through Nogales, are a part of our US food system.

The podcast storytelling around Nogales will help create a common understanding of why Mexico-grown produce cannot be left out of conversations during current and future emergency responses to public health crises, such as COVID-19. Future chapters of What is American Food? audio and web content will cover other aspects of the North American food system, telling our collective story of “American” food, and how regional and local systems work to feed us as well.

Audio Editing & Engineering: Ian Carlsen

Transcripts

Ali Berlow:

So here we go. I'm gonna kick it off. 'What Is

Ali Berlow:

American Food?' is a podcast about how our food system is

Ali Berlow:

designed. We're exploring the widespread assumptions and gaps

Ali Berlow:

in knowledge that we have in the United States about the food we

Ali Berlow:

eat year round.

Hannah Semler:

'What Is American Food?' explores the stories we

Hannah Semler:

tell and don't tell about our food security and nutritional

Hannah Semler:

health in the US, and what it is that we call American food. I'm

Hannah Semler:

Hannah Semler, you're listening to 'What Is American Food?,'

Hannah Semler:

exploring the gaps and assumptions in our stories about

Hannah Semler:

where our food comes from and why.

Ali Berlow:

And I'm Ali Berlow. Today we're talking about

Ali Berlow:

Nogales, Arizona, and how the produce sector works, by talking

to two produce businesses:

:

Chamberlain Distributing and

to two produce businesses:

:

Wilson Produce.

Hannah Semler:

For context, Mexico grown fresh produce is

Hannah Semler:

estimated to be about 84% of our fresh produce in the winter

Hannah Semler:

months. 6 billion pounds enter into our US supermarket and food

Hannah Semler:

service supply chains through Nogales, and about 1% of that 6

Hannah Semler:

billion that comes through Nogales is not sold. So

Hannah Semler:

Community Food Bank is one of several large scale fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce rescue efforts moving close to 45 million pounds of

Hannah Semler:

fresh produce to food banks across the country. All produce

Hannah Semler:

is donated in Nogales by more than 280 business partners whose

Hannah Semler:

only other option would have been to send it back to Mexico

Hannah Semler:

or dump it in the local landfill. Some 6000 tons,

Hannah Semler:

however, still end up in the landfill despite Food Rescue

Hannah Semler:

best efforts.

Ali Berlow:

So in this first chapter of 'What Is American

Ali Berlow:

Food?,' we're focusing on bringing attention to the value

Ali Berlow:

of our Mexican grown fresh produce, as it relates to all of

Ali Berlow:

us in terms of our nutritional security. So Hannah, tell us why

Ali Berlow:

this story is so important.

Hannah Semler:

I've been asking myself this question for some

Hannah Semler:

time, Ali. Why do I care about this story? And why do I want to

Hannah Semler:

tell it, and why now? And I think the truth is that, it

Hannah Semler:

scares me that so much of our fresh produce is being grown by

Hannah Semler:

a neighboring country to the south, and that nobody knows how

Hannah Semler:

or why. And that therefore we don't value it. So not valuing

Hannah Semler:

food is, to me the biggest reason for food waste. And I

Hannah Semler:

believe that if we can get to know the stories behind our

Hannah Semler:

food, whatever they may be, we will come to value it more and

Hannah Semler:

waste less. So another reason to tell the story is that I both

Hannah Semler:

want to support the Mexico produce sector that has been

Hannah Semler:

feeding our country for over a century, and I want to know how

Hannah Semler:

to affect it or drive it to adopt, you know, more

Hannah Semler:

sustainable or regenerative production practices. And

Hannah Semler:

consumer demand is what is going to drive those changes. But it

Hannah Semler:

needs to be an informed consumer demand that knows how to ask for

Hannah Semler:

the stories that they want their food system to be made up of.

Ali Berlow:

Makes so much sense. And it sounds like food waste

Ali Berlow:

and regenerative agriculture are the foundational points. So

Ali Berlow:

let's start with food waste. What can you tell us about food

Ali Berlow:

waste in Nogales?

Hannah Semler:

I became a Fink Family Foundation fellow in

Hannah Semler:

2018. After seven years of working at the intersection of

Hannah Semler:

sustainable food systems and food waste prevention, they were

Hannah Semler:

looking to understand more about how fresh produce in Nogales

Hannah Semler:

could be rescued to feed more people in the US, and further

Hannah Semler:

divert from landfill good quality and healthy produce. So

Hannah Semler:

I left my work measuring and marketing surplus with farmers

Hannah Semler:

in Maine and went to Tucson and Nogales for the winter. When I

Hannah Semler:

arrived in Nogales, one of the first videos I was shown was of

Hannah Semler:

literal mountains of tomatoes, as far as the eye could see,

Hannah Semler:

dumped in fields in Mexico due to a market disruption in the US

Hannah Semler:

in 2018. I was blown away. The landfill in Rio Rico, just north

Hannah Semler:

of Nogales, was recording an average of 6000 tons of produce

Hannah Semler:

a year, which we were there to try to help solve for. But I

Hannah Semler:

soon learned that, of course, back on the farms in Mexico,

Hannah Semler:

there were no solutions being put into place other than the

Hannah Semler:

little that the Mexican food banks could recover. A lot of it

Hannah Semler:

just stayed in the field. So Community Food Bank in Tucson

Hannah Semler:

and Dallas has been sourcing about 45 million pounds of fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce from warehouses in Nogales for over three years.

Hannah Semler:

And they wanted to scale this produce rescue to 60 million

Hannah Semler:

pounds a year based on the demand that they are getting

Hannah Semler:

from other food banks from around the country. But in order

Hannah Semler:

to do that they need a better planning system. They need more

Hannah Semler:

lead time to place produce in food banks. And so sourcing from

Hannah Semler:

those Mexican farms directly is a really important next step for

Hannah Semler:

the Community Food Bank's produce rescue program. And

Hannah Semler:

being from Maine and knowing the level of food insecurity that we

Hannah Semler:

have, and the lack of available fresh produce in the winter

Hannah Semler:

months in terms of what's being produced, we need more variety

Hannah Semler:

in our diet in our hunger relief organizations. And so I became

Hannah Semler:

interested in connecting the dots. How do we get more fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce in Maine? What is being left in the fields in Mexico,

Hannah Semler:

and how we can connect these food systems to make sure that

Hannah Semler:

fresh produce is not being wasted and that people have

Hannah Semler:

access to a variety of produce year round.

Ali Berlow:

So what's the role of the Community Food Bank in

Ali Berlow:

preventing that waste?

Hannah Semler:

So Community Food Bank is one of a few different

Hannah Semler:

nonprofits that are contributing to produce rescue efforts, and

Hannah Semler:

they support the businesses, one, in avoiding landfill

Hannah Semler:

dumping fees, and two, in providing the produce sector

Hannah Semler:

with a positive story about feeding their communities. A lot

Hannah Semler:

of the produce stays in Nogales to support community members,

Hannah Semler:

and then a lot of it goes to other food banks around Arizona

Hannah Semler:

and the Southwest. I think Community Food Bank shared about

Hannah Semler:

45 million pounds with 37 food banks in 33 states last year,

Hannah Semler:

and so working in a collaborative model with these

Hannah Semler:

other Arizona food banks and with other members of the

Hannah Semler:

southwest produce co-op, they have been able to develop a

Hannah Semler:

just-in-time logistics system with the hub in Nogales, to get

Hannah Semler:

as many of these loads of fresh produce that are offered to them

Hannah Semler:

out to food banks that have agreed to take product from

Hannah Semler:

Nogales in certain quantities every year.

Ali Berlow:

So you've worked there for almost two years, you

Ali Berlow:

said, and your focus has been on produce rescue with the

Ali Berlow:

Community Food Bank. But you've also gotten a chance to talk a

Ali Berlow:

lot with the companies that you're working with in Nogales.

Ali Berlow:

Can you tell us more about that?

Hannah Semler:

Yeah, Community Food Bank's produce rescue

Hannah Semler:

partners with about 280 produce businesses and donors that have

Hannah Semler:

different size warehouses in Nogales, and they're different

Hannah Semler:

kinds of businesses-- there are brokers, distributors, growers,

Hannah Semler:

shippers.

Ali Berlow:

Let's hear a clip from James Martin telling us

Ali Berlow:

about the history of Wilson Produce, where he's the

Ali Berlow:

Sustainability Director in Nogales.

James Martin:

We trace our roots back to the 1930s. James C.

James Martin:

Wilson, he was, came from California and married Esther,

James Martin:

and she was from Sinaloa de Leyva, and the two of them began

James Martin:

farming down in Sinaloa around 1936. So that was the family

James Martin:

farm. But Wilson Produce, the distributor or sort of sales and

James Martin:

marketing arm of the farm, got started in the mid 60s. And it's

James Martin:

developed over the years. Some time in the 90s we began working

James Martin:

with other farms and the sales and marketing distribution of

James Martin:

their products as well, and that's pretty close to where we

James Martin:

are today.

Hannah Semler:

It's such a great story and it gives you an idea

Hannah Semler:

of how this sort of organic evolution of Mexico produce

Hannah Semler:

coming into the U.S., a California businessman, you

Hannah Semler:

know, connected to a local woman from Sinaloa, and I mean just

Hannah Semler:

that, that story to me is the kind of story that I don't think

Hannah Semler:

we hold in our minds when we think about the the produce that

Hannah Semler:

we're picking up at the supermarket. And you know, one

Hannah Semler:

of the things that strikes me most about walking into the

Hannah Semler:

spaces and these businesses and these buildings that have been

Hannah Semler:

around for so long, you can see the train tracks that would have

Hannah Semler:

had trains unloading right at the doors of these facilities

Hannah Semler:

when when the produce was still coming up by train. And when you

Hannah Semler:

walk into these warehouses, it's palpable-- the history and the

Hannah Semler:

dignity and the pride with which these multicultural families

Hannah Semler:

bring all this fresh produce from Mexico up into our food

Hannah Semler:

system here in the U.S. And it takes a while to understand that

Hannah Semler:

this is a hundred year old sector that we're talking about.

Hannah Semler:

It's absolutely embedded into our food system in the U.S., and

Hannah Semler:

the many businesses that have been working have really shaped

Hannah Semler:

how we in the U.S. consumed fruits and vegetables in the

Hannah Semler:

winter months. And they've responded professionally with

Hannah Semler:

technological advances and you know updates to their production

Hannah Semler:

methods to what we're demanding here in the U.S. And so I just

Hannah Semler:

think it's really my biggest realization in coming back to

Hannah Semler:

Maine, and knowing how our food production dwindles in local

Hannah Semler:

product in the winter months, is that not only are we eating this

Hannah Semler:

nutritious food, our local jobs, food hubs, co-ops, distributors,

Hannah Semler:

retails, farm stands, restaurants are all able to be

Hannah Semler:

open because they have access to this fresh produce that they

Hannah Semler:

incorporate into their business model. That becomes the reason

Hannah Semler:

why you walk through their doors. And why you go into the

Hannah Semler:

co-op or why you go to a restaurant. And I question if we

Hannah Semler:

didn't have this source of produce, what would the effect

Hannah Semler:

on our jobs in the U.S., what would the effect on, you know,

Hannah Semler:

year round businesses in Maine be, not only from a nutritional

Hannah Semler:

security standpoint, but from a year round economic activity

Hannah Semler:

standpoint, keeping people employed and keeping our

Hannah Semler:

communities thriving? Feels to me like without the diversity of

Hannah Semler:

products, we would have a hard time operating a year round food

Hannah Semler:

economy.

Ali Berlow:

So we also talked with another Nogales based

Ali Berlow:

company, Chamberlain Distributing. Here's a clip from

Ali Berlow:

an interview with Jaime Chamberlain, so we could hear it

Ali Berlow:

in his own words, the significance of what, Hannah,

Ali Berlow:

you just described.

Jaime Chamberlain:

And I think it's important for anybody

Jaime Chamberlain:

listening to the podcast to remember that through Nogales,

Jaime Chamberlain:

Arizona, we have been importing Mexican fruits and vegetables

Jaime Chamberlain:

for over a century. And we've been feeding North America for

Jaime Chamberlain:

over a century. And it's extremely important that

Jaime Chamberlain:

Americans and Canadians and all North Americans understand that

Jaime Chamberlain:

one of the reasons we have some of the lowest food prices of any

Jaime Chamberlain:

industrialized country in the world are because of our

Jaime Chamberlain:

fantastic trade agreements. The agreements that we have with

Jaime Chamberlain:

Mexico, with Canada, with Europe. I mean, when I was a

Jaime Chamberlain:

kid, that I would go into the store and ask for tangerines,

Jaime Chamberlain:

and my mom would say, hey, they're out of season. Or

Jaime Chamberlain:

strawberries and she say, oh, let's wait two more weeks,

Jaime Chamberlain:

because they're out of season. Everything was always out--

Jaime Chamberlain:

something was always out of season, right? Right now we have

Jaime Chamberlain:

a generation of kids who walk into a store, and any day of the

Jaime Chamberlain:

week of the year, they'll find kiwis if they want. Mangoes, if

Jaime Chamberlain:

they want. Asparagus if they want. Now, whether that

Jaime Chamberlain:

asparagus is domestically grown, or if it's imported from some

Jaime Chamberlain:

other country, like Guatemala or Mexico or anywhere else-- to the

Jaime Chamberlain:

consumer, all they want is, they want that availability at a good

Jaime Chamberlain:

fair price. So I think it's important that we realize when

Jaime Chamberlain:

we talk about food, our food comes from everywhere, from all

Jaime Chamberlain:

over the world. And everyone wants to sell to the United

Jaime Chamberlain:

States. And I think that that we're extremely fortunate as a

Jaime Chamberlain:

country to be in that position.

Ali Berlow:

What that brings up for me is the idea that year

Ali Berlow:

round availability and how we've really lost touch with what is

Ali Berlow:

seasonal and what is year round. I guess before I just kind of

Ali Berlow:

avoided Mexico produce because it seemed unsustainable, or like

Ali Berlow:

it was coming from too far away. And now that I have a story from

Ali Berlow:

you, and I feel like I value it more so when I go into my co-op,

Ali Berlow:

I don't not pick it up. That makes sense. Can you paint a

Ali Berlow:

picture for us of what value you give a truckload of product

Ali Berlow:

leaving Nogales?

Hannah Semler:

It's quite amazing when you start driving

Hannah Semler:

south from Tucson, and you start seeing truckloads and truckloads

Hannah Semler:

coming north. And, and now that I have been immersed in the

Hannah Semler:

story of fresh produce, coming up from Mexico to Nogales to all

Hannah Semler:

across the country. What I see is first the visual of knowing

Hannah Semler:

that there are 20 pallets, there 40,000 pounds, you know each

Hannah Semler:

pallet is around 40 cases. And then I start to see the people

Hannah Semler:

that are moving it in the warehouse, the workers that are

Hannah Semler:

you know, making sure that the temperature is right and that

Hannah Semler:

the product is getting sold and, and the responsibility that

Hannah Semler:

those warehouse managers and the sales team have to the producers

Hannah Semler:

in Mexico that have sent their product up on consignment

Hannah Semler:

without a secured sale. They've gone through the entire process

Hannah Semler:

of planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting the

Hannah Semler:

product 10 hours north to Nogales, trusting these

Hannah Semler:

distributors and shippers and brokers that are going to sell

Hannah Semler:

this product to the US market. And I see their workers and the

Hannah Semler:

families that have formed towns around these 100 year old farms,

Hannah Semler:

and developed, you know, entire communities around what has been

Hannah Semler:

a pipeline of fresh produce for the US market for all these

Hannah Semler:

years, and then, you know, I also then sort of turn and see,

Hannah Semler:

of course, the the food banks and the volunteers and, and the

Hannah Semler:

employees at food banks that make it possible for that fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce that doesn't get sold, you know, for which those

Hannah Semler:

farmers don't get a return. But they get the satisfaction and

Hannah Semler:

the business owners get the satisfaction of at least having

Hannah Semler:

provided that produce to the local food bank and to food

Hannah Semler:

banks across the country. And those employees and volunteers

Hannah Semler:

at those food banks that are you know, caring for that fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce and making it available to people. And then of course,

Hannah Semler:

the customers on both ends, whether you're going to a

Hannah Semler:

Walmart or Costco or your local Co Op, or you're going to the

Hannah Semler:

food pantry in the winter months, it is highly likely that

Hannah Semler:

any fresh produce that you are consuming was produced in

Hannah Semler:

Mexico. And so I see all of us linked through this supply chain

Hannah Semler:

in what is a really, you know, beautiful supply chain and and

Hannah Semler:

series of, you know, people and it's very human to me now that

Hannah Semler:

there are faces behind this food that I now can value that

Hannah Semler:

because that story brings a lot of value to, you know, a bag of

Hannah Semler:

many sweet peppers that I might pick up at the co op here and

Hannah Semler:

remain and and that makes me want to eat every last bite of

Hannah Semler:

that product.

Ali Berlow:

Yeah, that's right. That's so true. Well, let's hear

Ali Berlow:

from James Martin, again, the sustainability director at

Ali Berlow:

Wilson produce.

James Martin:

You know, some of the questions you have are about

James Martin:

the US or the American food system. And I mean, I think it's

James Martin:

important to describe some nuance in there, I can speak to

James Martin:

a piece of that system, the piece that involves fresh

James Martin:

produce, it's, it's a piece that, that I think should be

James Martin:

more concerned with human health and nutrition. We're not in the

James Martin:

business of making bread, nor Twinkies, nor ketchup, or canned

James Martin:

tomatoes. Those are different parts of the, of the US or

James Martin:

American food system that I can't really speak to with first

James Martin:

hand experience. So I think it's important to point that out. And

James Martin:

I mean, some of the key differences there are that, you

James Martin:

know, we operate on a relatively smaller footprint than many of

James Martin:

those types of systems like row crops and corn, soy, that you

James Martin:

might consider as part of the US food system. And we operate in a

James Martin:

system that involves fresh, often raw products. So there's

James Martin:

there's greater concern around food safety. It's part of a

James Martin:

system that tends to depend more on manual labor and less

James Martin:

mechanized systems. So think, you know, tractors harvesting

James Martin:

corn or something like that. That's a different part of the

James Martin:

food system. I mean, those are, I think, are some important

James Martin:

distinctions that should be made between the the system that I

James Martin:

can speak to and the broader food system within the US.

Ali Berlow:

I love how he invokes Twinkies. So that was

Ali Berlow:

James Martin, like I said, and so in Nogales, it's not only

Ali Berlow:

home to an incredible source of fresh produce for this country,

Ali Berlow:

it's also some great nonprofits doing produce rescue. And there

Ali Berlow:

are some unique sustainability efforts in that business sector

Ali Berlow:

like Wilson Produce. Here's James again.

James Martin:

And we embarked on a path to move away from

James Martin:

conventional practices that weren't working for us and began

James Martin:

moving toward organic, although I don't know if we were really

James Martin:

thinking of it in those exact terms yet, I don't think we

James Martin:

realized that our soils weren't quite ready. And there was a lot

James Martin:

of change that needed to happen. But that kind of began-- that

James Martin:

was kind of the trajectory at the time. And about, it's taken

James Martin:

us about eight years or so. I mean, it's a minimum three years

James Martin:

requirement, which we've done, organic to the USDA standard,

James Martin:

but it's it's taken, that transition was incredibly

James Martin:

difficult. It took a toll on our production and developing

James Martin:

markets and really, just transforming the business model

James Martin:

was a major challenge. But we've come a long way. And I'm very

James Martin:

proud to say that, that this year, this season, which we're

James Martin:

just wrapping up now, has been the most productive season that

James Martin:

I've ever seen.

Hannah Semler:

Wilson Produce is just doing such incredibly

Hannah Semler:

advanced work and sustainability moving away from monocropping.

Hannah Semler:

And really looking at how to sustain their ability to grow,

Hannah Semler:

produce and feed people for the foreseeable future in the most

Hannah Semler:

healthy way for you know, planet and for their business. And also

Hannah Semler:

for the end consumer. And these are the stories that I think we

Hannah Semler:

need to tell about how food is produced in Mexico, in these

Hannah Semler:

great examples of a business feeling that it's time to

Hannah Semler:

transition to a more sustainable production method, to keep not

Hannah Semler:

only their business afloat, but to respond to the needs of the

Hannah Semler:

time, which are to make sure that we're doing everything we

Hannah Semler:

can to mitigate climate change. And it's really interesting to

Hannah Semler:

think about all of the struggles and the effort that goes into

Hannah Semler:

all of the produce that is being produced for our country here in

Hannah Semler:

the US. So I love this next clip of Jaime's. Jaime tells the

Hannah Semler:

story of how they got through, or how they were affected by the

Hannah Semler:

COVID-19 disruptions, which just feels like a really timely story

Hannah Semler:

to document.

Jaime Chamberlain:

So we started off our season with some

Jaime Chamberlain:

abnormally horrible weather, and weather patterns in our growing

Jaime Chamberlain:

area of Sinaloa that we had never seen before, with

Jaime Chamberlain:

astronomical amounts of rain in November. And then again at the

Jaime Chamberlain:

beginning of December, at the end of December. And then again

Jaime Chamberlain:

in January, I'm talking about anywhere between eight and 12,

Jaime Chamberlain:

13 inches of rain in each event. So that in itself was a

Jaime Chamberlain:

challenge. We always have weather challenges down in

Jaime Chamberlain:

Sinaloa and Sonora, where we get the majority of our product

Jaime Chamberlain:

from, but this was extraordinary, and not normal

Jaime Chamberlain:

and not typical for the time of year that it happened. So that

Jaime Chamberlain:

was already going to be a challenge. And then we go into

Jaime Chamberlain:

their issues with COVID-19. And how it affected the food service

Jaime Chamberlain:

industry, and how it even affected the retail industry.

Jaime Chamberlain:

And that I have to say, really, really threw a lot of people for

Jaime Chamberlain:

for a loop in the industry, and old timers even like myself,

Jaime Chamberlain:

that have been in the business for a long, long time. We've

Jaime Chamberlain:

never ever gone through anything like this. The first time we

Jaime Chamberlain:

really started noticing an issue was about the first week of

Jaime Chamberlain:

March, where we said, this is more serious than what we've

Jaime Chamberlain:

been listening to on the news. So when we started to see

Jaime Chamberlain:

restaurants, clothes, and suggestions of social

Jaime Chamberlain:

distancing, and suggestions of closing down restaurants, and--

Jaime Chamberlain:

but I think what was most impactful for us was when we

Jaime Chamberlain:

started seeing the cruise lines, and the people on the cruise

Jaime Chamberlain:

lines getting sick, and cities not wanting to disembark those

Jaime Chamberlain:

passengers. That's when we thought, alright, this is

Jaime Chamberlain:

really, really serious. And it could affect us in a big way.

Jaime Chamberlain:

Because food serve-- because cruise lines are actually a big

Jaime Chamberlain:

part of our food service industry. And that's when we

Jaime Chamberlain:

started to see this is going to be much more serious than what

Jaime Chamberlain:

we thought. Right after that it was a snowball effect. You

Jaime Chamberlain:

started seeing restaurants close and bars close. And then casinos

Jaime Chamberlain:

close. And then and then I think for me was something that was

Jaime Chamberlain:

really impactful was the first NBA player that was found with

Jaime Chamberlain:

COVID-19 and having the NBA stop practices-- that was a big

Jaime Chamberlain:

deal-- and stop the season. That was a really, really big deal

Jaime Chamberlain:

because that's also a large part of the food service businesses,

Jaime Chamberlain:

sporting events, concerts. And when you started to see people

Jaime Chamberlain:

right after that cancel big events, like the Coachella Music

Jaime Chamberlain:

Festival, like South by Southwest in San Antonio. That

Jaime Chamberlain:

was all a big deal. And it all came one right after another.

Jaime Chamberlain:

And there were successive significant announcements on

Jaime Chamberlain:

multiple days right after that. So when we said, when they said

Jaime Chamberlain:

you know what we now need to close down restaurants. That's

Jaime Chamberlain:

when a lot of our food service companies came back to us and

Jaime Chamberlain:

said, You know what? I'm a very large purveyor of food service

Jaime Chamberlain:

90% of my businesses that have food service, I have no outlet

Jaime Chamberlain:

for the inventory that I have, I'm going to have to cancel our

Jaime Chamberlain:

contracts, contracts that we had been fulfilling since the end of

Jaime Chamberlain:

September, and fulfilling them at a great cost because of what

Jaime Chamberlain:

had already happened weather-wise during the season.

Hannah Semler:

The majority of retailers around the country

Hannah Semler:

ended up helping food service companies, it sounds, for two or

Hannah Semler:

three weeks. And as things were shutting down, distributors in

Hannah Semler:

Nogales, like Chamberlain Distributing were left out of

Hannah Semler:

that, and they had nowhere to sell their products. So that

Hannah Semler:

meant a lot of produce was backed up in Nogales, and also

Hannah Semler:

all the way back on the farms, products were just lying in the

Hannah Semler:

fields. And were actually either unharvested or harvested and

Hannah Semler:

then discarded. We hear from Jaime here about what it meant

Hannah Semler:

for farms and food banks alike to experience this COVID-19

Hannah Semler:

disruption.

Jaime Chamberlain:

We ended up telling our growers to pick and

Jaime Chamberlain:

throw away in Mexico, hundreds and hundreds of 1000s and

Jaime Chamberlain:

millions of tons of produce was kept in Mexico. And hundreds of

Jaime Chamberlain:

1000s of boxes of produce were given away to food to food

Jaime Chamberlain:

banks. They didn't realize what was going to continue to happen,

Jaime Chamberlain:

which was unemployment right after that. And the unemployment

Jaime Chamberlain:

brought the long lines at the food banks.

Hannah Semler:

I just can't help but wonder whether these

Hannah Semler:

families could have instead been invited in as new customers at

Hannah Semler:

the doors of retailers across the country, you know, customers

Hannah Semler:

that wouldn't usually purchase produce, if all of a sudden they

Hannah Semler:

had had lower prices, which retailers know at what price

Hannah Semler:

different customers buy different produce. And there

Hannah Semler:

could have been a much bigger effort to pass through more

Hannah Semler:

produce during a health pandemic, to customers who

Hannah Semler:

wouldn't normally be able to shop those produce aisles. So

Hannah Semler:

you know, instead research shows that prices at grocery stores

Hannah Semler:

went up in April by 2.6%. And have actually stayed quite high

Hannah Semler:

since then, which I can only imagine continues to hurt the

Hannah Semler:

many struggling families and and families that find themselves

Hannah Semler:

unemployed now, and further exacerbates the pressures on

Hannah Semler:

food banks, which I believe we have a responsibility to hold

Hannah Semler:

our business sector accountable not only in donations to food

Hannah Semler:

banks, but in creating alternative methods for people

Hannah Semler:

to access fresh produce, using their infrastructure in times of

Hannah Semler:

crisis.

Ali Berlow:

Could you give us some more context as to what

Ali Berlow:

occurred for food banks?

Hannah Semler:

Yeah, so the pressures on food banks, from

Hannah Semler:

what I understand, was that the level of disruption was such

Hannah Semler:

that it went from having, you know, a normal season of, you

Hannah Semler:

know, donations, like four or five, six, maybe 10 loads a

Hannah Semler:

week. And all of the food banks around the country, we're seeing

Hannah Semler:

an average of about 300% increase in people showing up at

Hannah Semler:

their doors. And so at the same time, their volunteers and their

Hannah Semler:

employees were no longer able to go into work. And so the

Hannah Semler:

capacity for food banks was severely affected, because the

Hannah Semler:

distribution logistics shifted from what is generally a kind of

Hannah Semler:

a shopping experience that customers go through and choose

Hannah Semler:

their own products. And sometimes they have pre, you

Hannah Semler:

know, filled shopping carts that that customers come and pick up.

Hannah Semler:

But they weren't able to come inside the buildings and so all

Hannah Semler:

of the distribution shifted to a drive thru. And the drive thru

Hannah Semler:

method was meant to keep everybody as safe as possible

Hannah Semler:

while people needed food. And then because product was being

Hannah Semler:

disked and tilled and basically discarded at the farm, the

Hannah Semler:

availability of product just sort of went down.

Ali Berlow:

So going forward, farmers and distributors in

Ali Berlow:

Nogales are now planning for next year. I mean, we're right

Ali Berlow:

there. So here's Jaime Chamberlin, speaking to us back

Ali Berlow:

in June of 2020. About that planning.

Jaime Chamberlain:

Right now, you know, we don't just, we're

Jaime Chamberlain:

not just entrenched in this one year. I mean, right now I'm

Jaime Chamberlain:

doing planning for next season. We're buying seed right now with

Jaime Chamberlain:

our growers. We are talking about whether we're going to

Jaime Chamberlain:

grow XYZ more acreage in this commodity or that commodity, or

Jaime Chamberlain:

if we're just going to leave this commodity, and never do

Jaime Chamberlain:

anything. Again, we're talking about contracts. What other ways

Jaime Chamberlain:

can we secure contracts, in our wording and in our, with our

Jaime Chamberlain:

attorneys? How can we work with our customers better if this

Jaime Chamberlain:

happens again, you know, they say we're supposed, we may have

Jaime Chamberlain:

another second wave of COVID in the fall. If that happens,

Jaime Chamberlain:

again, that'll be very, very difficult for us. And I think

Jaime Chamberlain:

that we're, we're looking at, we're staring into a business

Jaime Chamberlain:

that can change on a dime. It's all based on consumer demand.

Ali Berlow:

So Hannah, tell us what happens to consumer demand

Ali Berlow:

when 30 million people are unemployed?

Hannah Semler:

Absolutely, Ali, we need to start thinking about

Hannah Semler:

what we're going to do differently this coming season.

Hannah Semler:

And farmers have already planted and the fresh produce is being

Hannah Semler:

grown. And so we need to proactively engage Nogales in a

Hannah Semler:

cross border plan for national food security in the US, as well

Hannah Semler:

as a collaborative approach of getting fresh produce from farms

Hannah Semler:

out to food banks in Mexico and supporting the logistics of that

Hannah Semler:

as well as getting fresh produce from those farms into our US

Hannah Semler:

food banking system. And we need to do that with a planned system

Hannah Semler:

that makes the the two countries work together towards ensuring

Hannah Semler:

food security, and making sure that this important fresh

Hannah Semler:

produce isn't going to waste. And Jaime says it really well in

Hannah Semler:

this next clip where he talks about how we need to focus on

Hannah Semler:

long term planning.

Jaime Chamberlain:

The focus here is not what happens in one

Jaime Chamberlain:

season. The focus is what happens out over the life of the

Jaime Chamberlain:

farmer and the life of the farmer's relationship

Ali Berlow:

Thanks, Hannah. This is all been so enlightening. Do

Ali Berlow:

you have any last comments for us?

Hannah Semler:

Well, I just l ve what Jaime just said. And I

Hannah Semler:

hink we should absolutely be lanning for the long term food

Hannah Semler:

ecurity for both count ies and connecting these food

Hannah Semler:

ystems. And I really want to th nk Fink Family Foundation for su

Hannah Semler:

porting this important w rk with Community Food Bank

Hannah Semler:

in Nogales. And also want to th nk Jaime Chamberlain and Jam

Hannah Semler:

s Martin for taking the time o speak to u

Ali Berlow:

This is Ali Berlow. Thanks for listening. 'What I

Ali Berlow:

American Food?' is a podcast ab ut how our food system is design

Ali Berlow:

d, exploring the widespre d assumptions and gaps i

Ali Berlow:

knowledge that we have in th United States about the food w

Ali Berlow:

eat year round

Hannah Semler:

And I'm Hannah Semler, and 'What Is America

Hannah Semler:

Food?' is a podcast exploring he stories we tell and don't t

Hannah Semler:

ll about our food security nd nutritional health in the